Cleveland Lacking Cooperstown Candidates

This week, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will announce this year’s class of inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

As has been the case for the last several years, the ballots will be largely devoid of any former Cleveland Indians players.

This year’s ballot features just three former Indians of the 34 players eligible. Neither Brian Giles, who began his 15-year career with four seasons in Cleveland, nor Aaron Boone, who played for the Tribe in 2005 and 2006, are expected to garner much interest in their first year of eligibility. Jeff Kent, who spent 39 games of his 17-year Major League career with the Indians in 1996, is on the ballot for a second season after being named on 15.2% of the ballots last year, but is not expected to receive close to the 75% of the vote needed in a class packed with much bigger names than his own.

Each of these men will need to obtain at least 5% of the vote in order to continue on to further ballots. After changes in the voting process this year, players have seen the number of years of eligibility decrease from 15 years to 10.

The Indians had a chance to see a pair of former members of the organization reach the Hall as part of the Golden Era Committee portion of the ballot in December. Legend Minnie Minoso received eight of the 12 votes he needed to ensure induction, while former pitcher Luis Tiant received fewer than three votes. No player was selected this season on this portion of the ballot.

Last year, a pair of former Indians joined Kent in their first year of eligibility. Former Cleveland draft picks and short term Indians Sean Casey and Richie Sexson each failed to receive a vote and were eliminated from future ballots. Three names familiar to Indians fans – pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and first baseman/designated hitter Frank Thomas – were voted in by the writers.

The Indians had five players on the ballot as recently as the class of 2013, but none of the quintet received enough votes to continue on. Former closers Jose Mesa and Roberto Hernandez were denied any votes. Ageless wonder Julio Franco received six votes, good for 1.1% of the total necessary, and was dropped from future voting. Fan favorite catcher and current Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar was also crossed off at the ballot box after being named on 16 ballots, a 2.8% haul.

The biggest upset may have been outfielder Kenny Lofton, whose 18 votes (3.2%) left him short of future consideration.

Lofton played 17 seasons in the Majors. Ten of those years were spent with the Indians, divided up over three separate trips and some of the best seasons of his career. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 1992, made six straight All-Star teams, and won four Gold Gloves in a talented AL outfield. He led the AL in steals in five straight seasons and finished his career with 622, 15th-most in baseball history. He accumulated 2,428 hits in 2,103 games and had a career .299 batting average.

Lofton seemed to always be on the big stage in October, appearing on postseason rosters in eleven of his 17 seasons. The eleven trips came in a span of 13 seasons, starting in 1995, and he missed just the 2000 and 2005 playoffs while with Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively. He played for eleven different organizations, but other than Cleveland, spent no more than one year in any one spot.

Lofton’s most comparable counterpart, Tim Raines, remains on the ballot for his eighth year after getting 46.1% of the vote last season. “Rock” played in six more seasons and almost 400 more games than Lofton and amassed 186 more stolen bases than him to currently reside with the fifth-most steals all-time.

Raines appeared in the postseason five times, winning a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1996. He played for six different teams, including 13 seasons with the Montreal Expos.

The Indians last had new inductees in 2011, when Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were the lone players voted in. Alomar spent his last three great offensive seasons in Cleveland from 1999 to 2001, making the last three All-Star appearances of his career to end a run of a dozen consecutive trips to the Midsummer’s Classic. Blyleven spent parts of five years of his 30’s with the Tribe from 1981 to 1985, twice finding himself in the top three of the Cy Young voting.

It may be some time until the Indians see another enshrined player representing the city of Cleveland in Cooperstown. At present, 28 players and one manager have entered the Hall after stays on the shores of Lake Erie.

Next season’s list does not look promising. The most successful of the newcomers to the ballot who have spent time in Cleveland is utility man Mark Grudzielanek. Fomer Indians reliever Bob Howry could also find himself on the bottom end of the ballot, if he makes the list at all.

The candidates for 2017 could include Manny Ramirez , Orlando Cabrera, Arthur Rhodes, and Danys Baez. Ramirez has the best chance of the group by far, but years of brainlapses on and off the field on a ballot full of other players tainted by the Steroid Era will not do him any favors.

Realistically, the Hall Class for 2018 will be the first one Indians fans will have a true interest in. Johnny Damon, Kevin Millwood, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, and Kerry Wood will all be eligible for the ballot for the first time that season, as well as pitchers Carl Pavano and Guillermo Mota. It is possible that only Thome stands a legitimate shot of entering the Hall on his first attempt that year.

Thome finished seventh all-time in home runs with two players above him who are linked with performance enhancers. His 612 home runs are the fourth most by a left-handed hitter. He also ranks fourth in at bats per homer, seventh all-time in walks, 18th in OPS, 21st in extra base hits, 23rd in slugging percentage, and 24th in runs batted in. He hit 20 homers or more in all but one season from 1994 to 2010 and 30 or more in 12 of 13 years, including an Indians franchise-best 52 in 2002. An injury-shortened 2005 season in Philadelphia may have cost him another 35 home runs from his career totals.

The knock on Vizquel was that the offensive side of the ball was not thought to be his specialty. Despite that, he still registered 2,877 hits (40th on baseball’s all-time list) in his 24-year career spent in six cities, including eleven in Cleveland. He played in 2,968 games, 12th-most in baseball history, while stepping to the plate 12,013 times.

He won eight straight AL Gold Glove Awards, including seven straight with the Indians starting in 1994, and won two more in the NL with the San Francisco Giants in 2005 and 2006. He has the tenth-best score in the defensive WAR metric all-time while playing in more games at shortstop than any other player to play the game. He is the career leader in double plays turned at the position that brought him the most success.

Damon’s best years were everywhere else but in Cleveland, where his 18-year career came to a rather unceremonious end behind a .222 batting average and a poor display of athletic prowess in left field in 2012. He was a .284 hitter over his career, totaling 2,769 hits and as many as 214 in 2000 with Kansas City. He was a two-time All-Star and came to fame in a pair of four-year stays in Boston and New York, winning a pair of championships. Millwood played 16 seasons with seven different clubs, finished third in the NL Cy Young in his lone All-Star campaign in 1999, and won an ERA title in his only season in Cleveland in 2005. Wood’s once promising starting pitching career, started with an NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1998, ultimately fizzled out. He salvaged his 14-year career with a trip to the backend of the bullpen, his role with Cleveland in 2009 and 2010.

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony for all of the likely non-Indians elected this year will take place on Sunday, July 26th.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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