Last year, when you watched a game involving the Cardinals, a big part of the appeal was knowing that you were getting your last shot at seeing some living legends in no-doubt-Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols and slightly-less-assured-but-very-likely-a-Hall-of-Famer Yadier Molina. It’s part of the fun of going to a game. Sometimes you know you’re seeing a legend in front of your very eyes — and sometimes it takes years or decades before you realize you saw a little-regarded rookie who ended up being an all-time star.
Part of the fun, too, is guessing who those Hall of Famers might be. We’ve done this nearly annually in the past, most recently in 2021: Who are the future Hall of Famers you will be able to say you saw play live in the upcoming season?
As always, the first question is to try to figure out how many Hall of Famers are even around in a given year, and in order to understand that, we can look backwards. The average, dating back to the beginning of AL/NL history, is 31 per year, though “average” comes with a lot of complications, as you can see here:
There’s peaks and valleys, of course. It was only 16 in 1945 and 17 in 1944, due to many stars being in military service. It was well above 50 in the late 1920s and early ‘30s in large part because the Veterans Committee of the 1970s had far too many personal connections to those players. Then, after decades of being around 40 Hall of Famers per season, it’s dipped since the turn of the century, in part because players like Pujols aren’t eligible yet, in part because of all of the well-known issues about what to do with the PED era of the time, and in part because the Hall of Fame is just harder to get into than it used to be.
Perhaps, then, it’s more useful to look at averages of different time frames.
All-time: 31 HOF per season
Since 1947: 33 HOF per season
1969-1998: 39 HOF per season
1947-2000: 38 HOF per season
Even this isn’t a totally valid look — remember that there were 16 teams in 1947, but 30 teams in 1998 — but it gives us an idea. We’re expecting something like 38 or 39 Hall of Famers for each season. We like round numbers, so let’s say 40. Who are the 40? It’s interesting to see how quickly this can change; two years ago, Kris Bryant, Trevor Story, Anthony Rendon, and Fernando Tatis Jr. made our list, but their cases have all dimmed.
(For each player, we’ll show his FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement total. While WAR alone doesn’t get you into the Hall, it does tell you a useful story, and we know that the “average” Hall of Famer comes in somewhere around ~60 WAR, with the best of the best topping 100 WAR.)
Tier 1: No-questions-asked first-ballot legends
1. Mike Trout (82 WAR)
2. Justin Verlander (78 WAR)
3. Clayton Kershaw (70 WAR)
4. Max Scherzer (70 WAR)
5. Miguel Cabrera (69 WAR)
It’s our opinion that not only could these five retire today and still sail into Cooperstown, they could have retired years ago and nothing would have changed. The three pitchers have, collectively, 9 Cy Young wins, 2 MVPs and 26 All-Star selections. Cabrera has a Triple Crown and 2 MVPs, and has topped both 500 homers and 3,000 hits. And Trout? The three-time MVP is only 31, yet he’s already one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
Tier 2: Late-career great cases
6. Zack Greinke (66 WAR)
7. Joey Votto (58 WAR)
Greinke, 39, is currently unsigned, though he’s expected to return, so we’ll include him here. In past iterations of this list, we’ve included him in the first group, and we do expect he’ll get in, but one Cy win on his résumé is somewhat lighter than the three apiece that Verlander, Kershaw and Scherzer have. Votto won’t come near 500 homers or 3,000 hits, but he’s also one of only 17 players in the integrated era to have a career .400 on-base and a .500 slugging — and the rest of the list is almost entirely Hall of Famers. Throw in a 2010 MVP win and five other top-six finishes, and he’ll get there.
Tier 3: The over-30 hitters on the right path
8. Paul Goldschmidt (54 WAR)
9. Freddie Freeman (50 WAR)
10. Manny Machado (47 WAR)
11. Nolan Arenado (46 WAR)
Goldschmidt felt like he needed one more great year to get over the line, and winning the 2022 NL MVP Award behind 35 homers — his seventh 30-plus homer season — and a .981 OPS certainly counts. Freeman, two years younger, is putting together a similar case. Machado and Arenado not only match excellent bats with all-time great defense, they’re each coming off arguably their best seasons, suggesting there’s plenty more yet to come.
We considered including J.T. Realmuto here, given that he’s going to end up with something like a decade-long run as one of baseball’s best catchers, but for now, it feels like he’ll come up just short. New D-back Evan Longoria might have a case purely on WAR — he’s similar to Goldschmidt, in part due to playing a more valuable defensive position — but he’ll have to convince voters his 20s (45.8 WAR up to and including his age-30 season) were good enough, since he’s posted just 8.7 WAR over his last six seasons.
Tier 4: The mid-/late-20s hitters on the right path
12. Mookie Betts (50 WAR)
13. Bryce Harper (44 WAR)
14. José Ramírez (41 WAR)
15. Francisco Lindor (42 WAR)
16. Xander Bogaerts (34 WAR)
17. Trea Turner (32 WAR)
Here we have a various collection of stars who have achieved all sorts of accolades; while this wasn’t intended on our part, every single name here has signed a huge contract over the last two years. It’s all but certain several of these names will get into Cooperstown, though it’s probably unlikely all six will; we’ll hedge and say four of them get enshrined.
(Some of these guys have already had their 30th birthday, but have yet to play their age-30 season, so we include them here.)
Tier 5: We interrupt this list to talk about the 2017 Astros
18. José Altuve (49 WAR)
19. Carlos Correa (31 WAR)
20. Alex Bregman (31 WAR)
We won’t fully know for many years how voters will view the participants in the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, though we’ll get our first look at it this year when Carlos Beltrán’s vote totals are known. (Verlander is likely to escape scrutiny as a pitcher who didn’t even join the team until August.) What we know now, for certain, are two things: A) these players have performed at an elite level and continue to do so, and B) they will forever be associated with that ‘17 team. Altuve may have the best case, given his status as one of the best post-war second basemen and reports that he had little interest in the scheme.
Tier 6: What if he hits 500 home runs?
21. Giancarlo Stanton (43 WAR)
There was a time, back in Miami, when Stanton was a power-hitting outfielder with a solid glove who seemed like he’d sail into Cooperstown. Now an injury-plagued DH, Stanton has contributed just 4.4 WAR to the Yankees over the last four seasons, though he did hit 35 home runs in 2021 and 31 more in ‘22, and that’s entirely the point. His case won’t be about WAR. It’ll be about the fact that as he heads into his age-33 season, he’s only 122 homers short of the magical 500.
It’s not that hard to think he could hit 25 homers a year for five more seasons, is it? And if he gets there, is that the magic number to get him in? Don’t forget, too, he’s been a fantastic postseason performer, with 11 more home runs and a .963 OPS in 27 October games for the Yankees.
Tier 7: How do we evaluate relievers?
22. Kenley Jansen (22 WAR)
23. Craig Kimbrel (20 WAR)
24. Edwin Díaz (12 WAR)
Reliever cases aren’t generally made on WAR, but as time goes on, it’s no longer really about saves, either, making their evaluations difficult. We can’t really go through the most reliever-heavy era in baseball history without inducting any relievers, can we? If so, the two obvious choices are Jansen and Kimbrel, who each debuted in 2010 and have had similar careers since, standing head-and-shoulders above their peers.*
Díaz is six years younger and so has a lot of work to do to compile the same track record, though he does have two of the most dominant reliever seasons ever and is the clear successor to their “baseball’s best reliever” crown. We include him over Josh Hader because he’s thrown more innings, and because Hader’s 2022 was extremely messy.
(*You might choose to include Aroldis Chapman here, though he’s A) currently unsigned for 2023 and B) carrying the self-inflicted baggage of off-the-field incidents that may hurt his case anyway.)
Tier 8: How do we evaluate starters?
25. Gerrit Cole (39 WAR)
26. Aaron Nola (30 WAR)
It’s a similar issue here, especially once the older generation of Verlander/Scherzer/Kershaw/Greinke ages out: How can we compare current starters to past ones, given the changing demands of the role? We’ve most likely seen the last 300-game winner, unless Verlander really sticks around until age 45 to do it, and we might not even see 200-game winners given that Cole, 32, has only 130. Plus, since starters don’t throw nearly as many innings as they once did, it’s almost impossible for today’s crew to compile the WAR totals of their forebears.
None of these are questions we’ll answer today, other than to point out that yes, obviously, some current starting pitchers will get into the Hall aside from the elder statesmen. Cole, a five-time top-five Cy finisher, seems like the best bet. Maybe the perpetually underrated Nola, who has six solid-to-excellent seasons and isn’t even yet 30, is another. Maybe Sandy Alcantara’s last two seasons are the first of a run of 200-inning years; maybe Julio Urías, somehow still only 26 after parts of seven seasons, can compile big counting totals. Maybe, too, we just don’t know how it’s going to work yet.
But there’s another group of starting pitchers with their own questions, too …
Tier 9: Well, Sandy Koufax got in
27. Chris Sale (45 WAR)
28. Jacob deGrom (41 WAR)
Koufax struggled for his first few years in the Majors, and retired after his age-30 season, making his candidacy entirely about a run of seven incredible seasons from ages 24-30. It was enough to get him elected into the Hall in 1972 on the first ballot. If Sale and deGrom are to get in, that’s going to be their case now.
Sale was in the “best pitcher in the game” conversation from 2012-’18, finishing in the top six of Cy voting each of the seven years and collecting some 2018 postseason heroics. He’s also got modern history’s best strikeout/walk ratio among starters with 1,000 innings (just ahead of deGrom), but given all the time he’s missed over the last three years, just piling up some solid competent innings would do wonders for his case.
It’s different for deGrom, 35, who hasn’t thrown 100 innings since 2019 but already has a Rookie of the Year Award, two Cy Youngs and a case to be made to be considered the most dominant per-batter pitcher in the history of the sport. At this point, there’s almost no chance he can compile a compelling career innings total. But if he has one more great season and wins a third Cy? It’s a guaranteed entry, so long as you’re not Roger Clemens.
(We might have included Stephen Strasburg here as well, though he’s thrown just eight games in the last three seasons, and it’s far from clear he’ll even appear in the Majors in 2023.)
Tier 10: The Aaron Judge zone
We place Judge by himself because we have no idea what to do with him. His 2022 was objectively one of the greatest seasons in the history of baseball, whether you look at the 62 home runs or the 11.4 WAR. It wasn’t his first great season, either, because he posted 8.7 WAR while hitting 52 homers when he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2017. You don’t have seasons like that and not make a list like this. But, too, Judge is already turning 31. Because he went to college, and missed some time due to injury between his two great years, Judge currently ranks 115th in WAR-through-30 in the integration era. There are other Hall of Famers near him, to be fair. He just needs to keep pumping out elite seasons.
Tier 11: The Shohei Ohtani zone
30. Shohei Ohtani (23 WAR)
Speaking of players who absolutely need their own individualized sections, Ohtani is doing things Babe Ruth never did, and despite the 2018 Tommy John surgery that interrupted his ascendance, Ohtani has now had three outstanding seasons. In 2018, he won the Rookie of the Year; in 2021, he was the American League Most Valuable Player; in 2022, he finished second in the MVP and fourth in the Cy Young. While there’s no actually strong evidence that WAR is short-changing his talents as a two-way player, it’s also highly likely that if he plays long enough and well enough to get onto a Hall of Fame ballot, voters would give him an extra boost just for doing things that no one else has. Since he has no comparables, ever, it might make the bar to get in just a little lower.
Not, of course, that he’ll necessarily require the help, given the level at which he’s playing on both sides of the ball.
Tier 12: The young legends in the making
31. Juan Soto (23 WAR)
32. Ronald Acuña Jr. (18 WAR)
33. Rafael Devers (18 WAR)
34. Yordan Alvarez (14 WAR)
35. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (9 WAR)
36. Adley Rutschman (5 WAR)
37. Julio Rodríguez (5 WAR)
This is the younger generation of baseball’s top stars, with Devers the oldest of this group, and he only just turned 26 in October. Not without their ups and downs — Acuña’s knee injury most prominently, but also some inconsistency from Guerrero — these are the leaders of the group that has been so good, so young that it would almost be a surprise if they didn’t have incredible careers. Alvarez’s role as a mostly-DH sets the offensive bar higher for him, yet there’s a reason he so often receives David Ortiz as his recent comparison. The bat is that good.
This is where Tatis Jr. would slot, and may yet again, but all the time missed due to injury and suspension has stalled any such talk entirely.
We’re leaving the last few slots here for the understanding that there are dozens of young players, just starting out, who will end up with good-to-great careers. It’s quite possible we just saw the start of some of them in 2022, aside from Rutschman and Rodríguez; maybe the bright debuts from Michael Harris II or Spencer Strider or Steven Kwan or Bobby Witt Jr. or Corbin Carroll or Gunnar Henderson are merely the start of something great. Maybe Vinnie Pasquantino is the next Votto; maybe Oneil Cruz harnesses his incredible physical talents. Maybe we remember Wander Franco isn’t 22 until March.
Maybe it’s prospects we may see for the first time in 2023, like Grayson Rodriguez or Diego Cartaya or Anthony Volpe. And maybe, it’s someone you never saw coming, the once-in-a-lifetime unheralded player who exceeds all expectations. Which, really, is the point. We can make good, strong, educated guesses. But we won’t know, not for decades. It’s that anticipation, that uncertainty, that makes the games all so interesting.