By NICK LECO
If not for his one plate appearance for the Cleveland Indians in 2005, Juan Gonzalez would have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. It is probably just as well for the longtime Texas Rangers slugger, as it will allow him more time to distance himself from performance-enhancing drug-related allegations that came up in the Mitchell Report. “Juan Gone” won two American League MVP awards and finished his career with 434 home runs, but is he Cooperstown material?
Home Runs: 434
Batting Average: .295
On-Base Percentage: .343
Slugging Percentage: .561
Teams: Rangers (1989-1999, 2002-2003), Tigers (2000), Indians (2001, 2005), Royals (2004)
Throughout the ‘90s, Gonzalez was one of the most lethal and intimidating sluggers in the game. He hit 335 homers during that decade and topped the 40-home run mark five times. He led the A.L. with 43 home runs in 1992 and repeated the feat the following year with 46 longballs. Gonzalez finished his career with 434 home runs, which is good for 37th all-time.
Juan Gone was an RBI machine, topping the 100-RBI mark eight times and driving in an incredible 560 runs from 1996 to 1999. He ranks 68th all-time with 1,404 RBI, and led the A.L. with a whopping 157 RBI in 1998. Among players who have knocked in at least 157 runs in a season, only Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa - both of whom have yet to appear on the ballot - are not in the Hall of Fame. Gonzalez set the record for most RBI in April (35) that season and became just the second player in history to accumulate more than 100 RBI before the All-Star break (Hank Greenberg, 1935).
Gonzalez was selected to participate in three All-Star games and won six Silver Slugger awards. He took A.L. MVP honors in 1996 and 1998 and received votes in another five seasons, including a fourth-place finish in 1993 and a fifth-place showing in 2001. In his two MVP seasons, Gonzalez averaged .316 with 46 homers and 150 RBI.
The Rangers enjoyed the most successful stretch in the team history with Gonzalez in the fold, reaching the postseason three times. In his first ever playoff series, in 1996, Gonzalez hit a torrid .438 with five homers and nine RBI as his Rangers fell to the eventual champion New York Yankees in the Division Series. During that series, Gonzalez tied Jeffrey Leonard’s record by homering in four straight postseason games. For his career, Gonzalez belted eight homers and drove in 15 runs in as many playoff games.
The biggest impediment to Gonzalez’ Hall of Fame chances is the fact that his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report. The report cites a 2001 incident in which a piece of luggage belonging to either Gonzalez or his personal trainer, Angel Presinal, was found to have contained steroids. Gonzalez and Presinal have since denied that the bag contained steroids, and each claims that the bag belonged to the other. MLB and team officials never did confirm that the bag contained steroids, but Hall of Fame voters are justifiably going to be skeptical about any Steroid Era player linked to performance-enhancing drugs - especially one that put up such gaudy numbers.
Though Gonzalez played during an era in which power numbers were inflated, numerous injuries kept him from reaching some of the statistical milestones that Hall of Fame voters use to justify their selections. His career home run total (434) is impressive by almost any measure, but falls short of the 500 that has been the standard for Hall of Fame enshrinement for power hitters. The ability to drive in runs was arguably his signature trait, but his 1,404 RBI put him only 68th on the all-time list, behind non-Hall of Famers like Harold Baines, Dave Parker and Joe Carter.
It can also be said that Gonzalez wasn’t even the best player at his position during his career. Despite his two MVP’s, Gonzalez was outshined by the likes of Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds and others. He was even overshadowed on his own team at times by the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez. Gonzalez was never known for his defense, either, and never won a Gold Glove award.
Steroids aside, Gonzalez is barely a borderline Hall of Famer. The two MVP’s and unbelievable RBI numbers have to count for something but his overall body of work falls short of what is required for enshrinement, in large part because of his swift decline in his early 30s. With a good but not great resume and the cloud of steroid suspicion hanging overhead, Gonzalez will have a hard time finding enough votes to get into Cooperstown.
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns:
Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, Mike Mussina, Jim Rice, Andres Galarraga, Jim Kaat, Dave Concepcion, Jeff Kent