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Who’s bound for Cooperstown?

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Jones, Thome lead newcomers on 2018 HoF ballot

It’s that time of year again. The Baseball Hall of Fame has released its ballot for the 2018 induction season … and it’s a humdinger. There’s a quartet of names atop the list of newcomers that will certainly inspire a lot of conversation – some with broad acceptance, others with heated debate.

Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Johan Santana are the most prominent players to enter their first year of eligibility this time around. While arguments will doubtless be made for all four men, there’s a pretty sharp divide between two who are no-doubters for the Hall and two guys who face a steep uphill climb to Cooperstown.

We’ll start with Chipper Jones. When you’re talking about something as relatively subjective as the Hall of Fame, just about every potential inductee will have his naysayers. That said, it’s REALLY difficult to see how anyone could justify leaving Jones off their ballot beyond some sort of game theory/another guy needs the votes rationale.

No matter how you look at the numbers, Jones is an all-time great. He spent almost 20 years at third base for a single team, the Atlanta Braves – a rarity in the free agency era. His career slash line was .303/.401/.529; he’s one of only a handful to manage that level of performance. His counting numbers are plenty impressive as well – 468 home runs, 2,726 hits, 1,623 RBI and 1,619 runs scored; throw in nearly 500 doubles, over 1,500 walks and 150 steals and you’ve got one hell of a career line. Jones also won a batting title, a pair of Silver Sluggers and the 1999 NL MVP. An elite performer for well over a decade, he’ll stroll into the Hall with well over 90 percent of the vote.

Next is Jim Thome. There are those who might argue against Thome’s inclusion due to the nature of the era in which he played. However, the truth is that the perceived value of his particular skill set is considerably higher than it was while he was still playing. That – plus the fact that he was liked by just about everyone – probably gets him in on the first ballot.

When looking at the stats for Thome, you have to start with the homers. 612 of them, in fact – eighth on the all-time list. He scored nearly 1,600 runs, drove in just one shy of 1,700 and walked 1,747 times – seventh most in MLB history. His career on-base percentage of .402 and slugging percentage of .554 are both exceptional. However, his .276 batting average and 2,328 hits are less imposing. And of course, there are the strikeouts – 2,548 of them, the second-most all time. In addition, while he was usually in the mix, Thome rarely led the league in any offensive categories (walks three times, homers once) and never got higher than fourth in an MVP race. Still, his overall numbers – along with a new appreciation for his style of play – will be enough for a plaque.

The other two high-end newcomers – Vizquel and Santana – will almost certainly not see nearly as much support for their respective candidacies.

While many consider Vizquel to be among the best-ever defensive shortstops – he won 11 Gold Gloves over the course of his career – advanced metrics are far less kind to his game. He wound up with nearly 2,900 hits and over 400 steals in his 24-year career, but he was never much of an offensive force, slashing .272/.336/.352. His defense doesn’t transcend those numbers.

Santana, on the other hand, burned bright but all too briefly. His career was truncated by injury – he had a dozen years in all. Those 12 years yielded exceptional numbers – a 139-78 record, a 3.20 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP and 1,988 strikeouts in 2,025 innings. He led the league in ERA and Ks three times each and WHIP four times. He won two AL Cy Young Awards and from 2004-2008 was probably the best pitcher in baseball. Ultimately, he simply didn’t last long enough.

An unsung pair from among the new additions are Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen. Both men were elite defenders – Jones in centerfield, Rolen at third base. Both managed some impressive offensive numbers to start their careers before a precipitous decline beginning in their early 30s. Both have advanced statistical arguments for being among the best at their positions – positions that are underrepresented in the Hall. One could argue that both men have better cases than either Vizquel or Santana; it just remains to be seen if the electorate continues to evolve with regards to their sabermetric understanding.

All that, plus some pretty prominent holdovers. Trevor Hoffman missed induction by just five votes last year. Vlad Guerrero missed by 15. It seems safe to say that both will likely make the cut this time around, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for other honorees. Jones will make it easily. Thome looks like a pretty clear-cut choice as well. That would make for a four-man class – a rare occurrence.

All that leaves aside other holdovers like Edgar Martinez – 58.6 percent last year – and the PED-tainted candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom have crossed the 50 percent threshold. Mike Mussina’s over 50 percent as well.

The 2018 Hall of Fame ballot is a crowded one, featuring so many worthwhile candidates that it’s a certainty a few will wind up lost in the shuffle. It’s an unenviable task laid before the BBWAA, but one thing is for certain – it’s going to be one hell of a class.

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