Who Will Be the Next Indians’ Great in the Hall of Fame?

This weekend, the Class of 2014 will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For the third consecutive season, no former Cleveland Indians representative is to be enshrined.

The last time former Indians were added to the list of 306 members of the Hall of Fame was in 2011, when former second baseman Roberto Alomar and pitcher Bert Blyleven were selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and joined executive Pat Gillick, who was selected by the Veterans Committee.

This year, all six men entering the Hall saw memorable moments in their careers against the Indians.

Manager Bobby Cox and pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, all former Atlanta Braves, could be remembered for their victory in the 1995 World Series against the Indians. Managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre each spent time managing in the American League against Cleveland during their more successful years in the dugout. Slugger Frank Thomas spent his entire 19-year career in the AL with Chicago, Oakland, and Toronto and drove in 155 runs against Cleveland, the most he had against any one opponent, while batting .306 in his career with 42 home runs against them.

The Hall announced on Saturday that the decision had been made to reduce the number of years that a player would be eligible for induction from 15 years to ten. The change in the rule was said to help to keep the balloting process fresh. Only three players have reached the Hall in the last 30 years when on the ballot for more than ten years, including Blyleven.

A total of 28 former Indians players and one former manager are currently enshrined in Cooperstown. Thirteen of the men spent the majority of their careers in Cleveland.

Many of them punched their ticket to the Hall not by the BBWAA, but by other committees, such as the Veterans Committee, that considered managers, umpires, executives, and other long-retired players. Former Indians players Earl Averill, Stan Coveleski, Larry Doby, Elmer Flick, Joe Gordon, Addie Joss, Hal Newhouser, Sam Rice, Joe Sewell, and Satchel Paige all entered the Hall of Fame through the committee process, as well as manager Al Lopez and former owner Bill Veeck.

The Indians were not represented in the inaugural class of five to be enshrined in 1936. The quintet was deserving though – Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson (who entered as a player and not for his .516 winning percentage in parts of three years managing the Indians from 1933 to 1935), Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner. The following season, three former Indians joined them, including Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Cy Young.

A small selection of short-term ex-Indians players are on the BBWAA ballot for the coming season and only one of the bunch will likely receive significant consideration over the next few years.

Infielder Jeff Kent, who spent the last couple of months of the 1996 season with the Indians, drew 15.2% of the vote in 2014 in his first appearance on what was considered a very strong ballot. He spent 17 years in the Majors with a .290 career batting average, 377 home runs, was a five-time National League All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger Award winner, and won the NL MVP Award in 2000.

Other former Indians who may be considered for the final version of the ballot for the Class of 2015 include a slew of first-timers – infielder Aaron Boone, outfielders David Dellucci and Brian Giles, starting pitcher Paul Byrd, and relievers David Weathers, Julian Tavarez, Alan Embree, and Ron Villone.

Four former Indians were on the ballot last season, including Kent. They included Richie Sexson and Sean Casey, who both failed to receive the minimum number of votes to remain on the next year’s ballot in their first year of eligibility, and Jack Morris, who drew just 61.5% of the 75% total needed in his 15th and final year on the ballot.

With that all said, who will be the next likeliest ex-Indians player to enter the Hall by way of the BBWAA?

The new options in 2016 to don Cleveland across their chest will be reliever Bob Howry and infielder Mark Grudzielanek, neither of whom will garner significant interest from the writers. In 2017, the new additions include four-month Clevelander Orlando Cabrera, a tainted performance-enhancer in Manny Ramirez, 2005 Indians reliever Arthur Rhodes, and reliever Danys Baez, who spent his first three MLB seasons with the club. Ramirez may hang around a few years, especially if PED views by some of the writers happen to change over time, albeit unlikely.

It will likely not be until 2018 that the names of Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel are on the ballot that a former Indians player gets serious consideration for a plaque in the hall of legends in Cooperstown.

Of the two, Thome has all but punched an early ticket into central New York. How early remains to be seen.

Thome will be joined by another strong candidate for early induction in former Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones. The two very likely could be surrounded on their first ballot by the likes of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Gary Sheffield, stars whose legacies will forever be linked to performance enhancers, which could make the clean backgrounds of Thome and Jones look that much more enticing.

Thome ended his 22-year career seventh on the all-time home run list and fourth all-time from a left-handed hitter with 612 blasts in total. The next closest active player behind him, Albert Pujols, is 100 home runs in the rear view. Three of the six players in front of him have not made it into the Hall, but two (Bonds, Alex Rodriguez) have the black cloud of PEDs chasing them, and Ken Griffey and his 630 home runs is not eligible for the BBWAA ballot until 2016. Thome’s 13 walk-off home runs are an MLB record, one better than Hall of Famers Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, and Frank Robinson.

The former Indians, Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins, and Orioles third and first baseman and designated hitter was a five-time All-Star and the 2006 AL Comeback Player of the Year with Chicago. He finished in the top five in his league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage five different times and finished top five in home runs in his league eight different times. Ten different times he led the league in walks and finished with the seventh-most in a career with 1,747. His 1,699 runs batted in are the 24th most all-time. On the negative side, he does own the second-most strikeouts in the history of the game with 2,548.

He is the Indians’ franchise leader in home runs (337), walks (1008), intentional walks (87), and strikeouts (1400), is second in RBI (937), is third in on-base percentage (.414), slugging (.566), OPS (.980), and extra-base hits (620), and is fifth in runs scored (928).

The path for Vizquel may be much more of a challenge, especially now losing five years of eligibility at the back end of his run on the ballot while being a player far better known for his defensive play than his bat.

He won nine consecutive Gold Glove awards, including eight in Cleveland, and eleven overall. He was a three-time AL All-Star for the Tribe, hitting .272 in his career while stealing 404 bases in 24 seasons in Seattle, Cleveland, San Francisco, Texas, Chicago, and Toronto.

He appeared in the 12th most games played in the history of the game with 2,968. The only two players with more games played than him not in the Hall of Fame – overall leader Pete Rose, and the tenth place Bonds. His 2,264 singles are the 17th most in a career, and only three players above him on that list have yet to be inducted – Rose and the active Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki. Vizquel led the league in sacrifice hits in four different seasons and finished 35th overall.

Defensively, where the eye rarely lies but the statistics can be harder to make a compelling case with, he ranks fifth in a career with 8,050 assists while playing six of the nine fielding positions. He is the all-time leader in defensive games played as a shortstop with 2,709. He is first in double plays turned as a shortstop, as “Little O” helped to convert 1,734 twin kills. He has the second-best fielding percentage by a shortstop in MLB history (trailing Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki by less than a thousandth of a point), and was in the top three of his league in 13 different seasons.

Vizquel is the Indians’ all-time leader in sacrifice flies, as his 62 are two more than Andre Thornton’s mark in Cleveland. He is second in stolen bases (279), fifth in at bats (5,708), sixth in runs scored (906), seventh in hits (1,616), eighth in doubles (288), and tenth in games played (1,478) and walks (612).

It is much more difficult to try to forecast any former Indians who could gain induction by means of the Veterans Committee. That process is completed by various groups of Hall of Fame and media members and focuses on players who failed to make it by BBWAA vote, non-player personnel (umpires, managers, front office executives, owners, etc.), and Negro League players. Players must be named on 75% of those ballots, just like the process done by the BBWAA.

In order to enter via this process, a player must be retired at least 23 years and have received at least 100 votes from the BBWAA. The Veterans Committee looks back at various eras over the history of baseball before coming up with a short list of possibilities. The 2015 candidates will be from the Golden Era, a period from 1947 to 1972, and the 2016 potentials will come from the Pre-Integration Era, a stretch from 1871 through 1946. The Expansion Era options (1973 to present) on the 2014 ballot included Cox, La Russa, and Torre.

Plenty of candidates exist, especially from the Golden Era portion of the Veteran Committee’s ballot, who spent time in Cleveland, including pitchers Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, and Camilo Pascual, and fielders Minnie Minoso (one of just two players ever to play in five different decades), Norm Cash (who spent four months with the organization but never played a game for the club), Vada Pinson, Rocky Colavito, and Roger Maris.

Former Cleveland and Boston pitcher Wes Ferrell was among ten candidates considered for the Pre-Integration Era ballot as part of the 2013 voting process. Pitcher Tommy John and former Indians infielder Billy Martin, recognized for his managerial career around the league, were candidates from the 2014 Expansion Era Hall of Fame ballot this past year and could have Morris join as competition the next time around in 2017.

Out of this process, there remains a chance that one of these men, especially Tiant or the 88-year-old Minoso, could see their names finally called, and possibly before that of more recent stars Thome and Vizquel. Regardless, the recent drought of Clevelanders from the Hall of Fame should not last much longer.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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