The best non-Hall of Famer at every position

Let the debates begin: An all-time roster outside Cooperstown

January 26th, 2022

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected the newest Hall of Famer in Red Sox legend David Ortiz on Tuesday. Meanwhile, several other notable names from baseball history saw their tenures on the BBWAA ballot come to an end.

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling all fell short of the required 75% of the BBWAA vote for Hall of Fame election in their 10th and final year on the ballot. Their cases now move to consideration by the Today’s Game Era Committee that will convene in December 2022 at MLB’s Winter Meetings in San Diego. Their expiration from the BBWAA offers another chance to look at the landscape outside the Hall’s hallowed Plaque Gallery in Cooperstown, and “draft” a roster of the best non-Hall of Fame players in baseball history at every position.

Important note: For this exercise, we only considered players who have been retired for at least five years, the waiting time required before one can appear on a BBWAA ballot. Recently retired stars sure to get a serious look once they’re eligible -- such as Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Mauer and Adrián Beltré -- are noted in the honorable mentions below.

C: Bill Freehan
Call this a toss-up between Freehan and Thurman Munson, both of whom could use a longer look from the Hall’s veteran committees. Freehan enjoyed a longer career because of Munson’s unfortunate passing at age 32, and thus he finished with more hits, homers, RBIs and Gold Glove Awards. But he was also just as accomplished a two-way catcher as the Yankees captain -- and just as revered a leader for the Tigers, too.

On a technical level, both Freehan and Munson (along with Gene Tenace, who nearly split his career evenly between catcher and first base) own the highest JAWS totals (Jay Jaffe’s system that combines career Wins Above Replacement with a player’s seven best seasons) among eligible backstops on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.

Honorable mentions: Munson, Tenace, Jorge Posada (Joe Mauer not yet eligible)

1B: Rafael Palmeiro
BBWAA voters strongly dismissed Palmeiro’s Cooperstown case on account of his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, but the fact remains that Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez are the only Hall-eligible player with at least 3,000 hits and 500 homers who are not enshrined (Albert Pujols is yet to hit the ballot). Mark McGwire reached higher peaks, but Palmeiro nearly matched McGwire’s career homer total, almost doubled Big Mac’s hit total and was a more lauded defender, too.

Honorable mentions: McGwire, Fred McGriff, Todd Helton

2B: Lou Whitaker
Jeff Kent famously hit the most homers of any second baseman, thus making his exclusion from the Hall somewhat strange. But most of Kent’s dingers were hit during unprecedented boon times for the long ball, and while defensive metrics get murkier the further back one goes, Whitaker’s more polished all-around game stands out more to this author. As Jaffe noted for FanGraphs in 2019, Whitaker belongs to a select group of players (and is the only second baseman besides Jackie Robinson) who finished their careers at least 200 batting runs, 50 fielding runs and 25 baserunning runs above average. Plus, it just doesn’t feel right that Alan Trammell is in the Hall without his double-play partner.

Honorable mentions: Kent, Bobby Grich (Chase Utley not yet eligible)

3B: Dick Allen
Scott Rolen deserves the momentum he’s getting on the BBWAA ballot, but Allen’s recent passing shone an even brighter spotlight on his Cooperstown-worthy credentials. As MLB.com’s Andrew Simon noted, Allen’s career 156 league-adjusted OPS+ puts him in the very upper echelon of post-integration hitters, and his best 10-year run at the plate was pretty much unmatched by his peers. It’s unfortunate that Allen didn’t live long enough to celebrate his election, but here’s hoping that honor comes soon -- he fell just one vote shy of election when the Golden Days Committee last convened in 2021.

Honorable mentions: Rolen, Graig Nettles, Ken Boyer, Sal Bando (Adrián Beltré not yet eligible)

SS: Alex Rodriguez
This isn’t a close race at shortstop now that Rodriguez is Hall-eligible, but he received only 34.3% of the vote in his first year on the BBWAA ballot in 2022. With 696 home runs, 2,086 RBIs, three AL MVP Awards, 14 All-Star Game selections and a World Series championship across his 22 year career, A-Rod’s on-field numbers legitimately rank alongside the Hall’s inner-circle members. But he will face the same hurdles as Bonds, Clemens and Sosa thanks to multiple transgressions with performance-enhancing drugs that included over a year-long suspension from baseball from 2013-14. Rodriguez will now have to endure the waiting game with BBWAA voters, like Bonds, Clemens and Sosa just did.

Honorable mentions: Bill Dahlen, Omar Vizquel, Jimmy Rollins, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, Jim Fregosi

LF: Barry Bonds
This doesn’t require much explanation; Bonds is the greatest player many of us have seen in our lifetimes, and he had accrued surefire Hall credentials before his alleged PED use clouded the picture. His momentum with BBWAA voters stalled out, but he could have at least one more swing at the Hall, starting as soon as the Today’s Game Era Committee convenes in the winter of 2022.

Honorable mention: Pete Rose, Manny Ramirez

CF: Kenny Lofton
Lofton always seemed to be on the move (he played for 11 teams, and stayed one season or less with every club except the Indians), perhaps diluting how valuable he really was. The only four players more valuable by combined Baseball-Reference WAR from 1992-97 were Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas, and Lofton remained an offensive catalyst and stolen-base threat well into his 30s. Lofton got on base more times than Hall of Fame outfielders Larry Walker, Jim Rice and Joe DiMaggio -- and he did more damage with his legs once he got on base, too.

The differences between Lofton and Andruw Jones’ peak WAR and JAWS totals are negligible, and so Lofton’s longevity gives him the slight edge here.

Honorable mentions: Jones, Jim Edmonds, Dale Murphy, Jim Wynn (Carlos Beltrán not yet eligible)

RF: Shoeless Joe Jackson
On the day that Ted Williams famously played both legs of a doubleheader against the A's and clinched his .400 season in 1941, opposing manager Connie Mack said, “I wish I had a Williams. I had one once, and I lost him.”

Mack was referring to Jackson -- maybe the game’s most revered natural hitter before Williams came along -- whom Mack regrettably traded away before he became a star in Cleveland. One hundred years have passed since Shoeless Joe’s last big league season, and his talent and numbers (a ridiculous .356 career average and 170 career OPS+) may still make him the best choice for this spot 100 years from now. His ban from the game doesn't seem like it will ever be lifted.

Honorable mentions: Sammy Sosa, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Gary Sheffield, Dave Parker, Bobby Abreu (Ichiro Suzuki not yet eligible)

DH: Hal McRae
Only six players have logged at least 7,500 career plate appearances while playing at least half their games at designated hitter. Four of them (Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas) are already in the Hall following Big Papi’s election in 2022.

That leaves an even matchup between McRae and Don Baylor on the outside looking in. Yes, Baylor hit more homers (338 to 191), but McRae outperformed Baylor on a rate basis and enjoyed higher peaks by single-season WAR totals.

Honorable mention: Baylor

Starting RHP: Roger Clemens
Seven Cy Young Awards, two pitching Triple Crowns, an AL MVP Award and the third-most strikeouts in history give Clemens a claim to best pitcher of all-time, and just like Bonds, he likely had a Hall of Fame résumé before he began his alleged use of PEDs. Now we wait to see whether Clemens has an easier time with the Today’s Game Era Committee than he did with the BBWAA.

Honorable mention: Curt Schilling, Tim Lincecum, Luis Tiant, Dave Stieb, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Orel Hershiser, Roy Oswalt, Eddie Cicotte

Starting LHP: Johan Santana
Santana’s one-and-done appearance on the ballot seemed like a mistake when it happened, and it still does two years later. It’s hard not to wonder whether Santana would be making a steady year-by-year improvement in the voting totals now if he had rightfully taken home the 2005 AL Cy Young Award that went to Bartolo Colon instead.

Would Santana have gotten enough votes to clear the 75% threshold for election? Probably not. But winning the 2005 Cy Young -- which would have given him three straight Cys from 2004-06 -- would have forced the BBWAA to give him a much longer look. Clemens, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer are the only three-time winners who don’t have a plaque.

Honorable mention: Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Mickey Lolich, Jimmy Key (CC Sabathia not yet eligible)

Relief RHP: Dan Quisenberry
Just about every modern-day righty reliever who should be in the Hall is already there following Lee Smith’s election in 2018. Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon both went one-and-done after falling shy of 5% of the BBWAA vote in their ’22 ballot debuts. Francisco Rodríguez could debut on the ballot in ’23.

So with a lack of a real statistical standout, how about Quiz? The beloved submariner has a case for the 1980s’ best reliever, having won five Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Awards, finishing with a league-adjusted 146 ERA+ and helping the Royals claim two pennants and the 1985 World Series title.

Honorable mention: Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Keith Foulke, Tom Gordon, Tom Henke, Firpo Marberry, Troy Percival, Kent Tekulve, John Wetteland (Rodríguez and Huston Street not yet eligible)

Relief LHP: Billy Wagner
Among all Live Ball Era pitchers with at least 750 innings, Wagner is the very best in strikeouts per nine innings (11.9) and WHIP (0.998) while also ranking behind only Mariano Rivera in ERA+ (187) and owning the sixth-highest save total in history (422). I fear that Wagner, if he isn't elected from a less-crowded ballot right now (he garnered 51% of the vote in 2022, his seventh year on the ballot) could be overshadowed by modern-day strikeout monsters like Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel at the end of the decade.

Honorable mention: John Franco, Sparky Lyle, Tug McGraw, Randy Myers

Kelly's all-time non-HOF team (as of 2022)

C: Bill Freehan
1B: Rafael Palmeiro
2B: Lou Whitaker
3B: Dick Allen
SS: Alex Rodriguez
LF: Barry Bonds
CF: Kenny Lofton
RF: Shoeless Joe Jackson
DH: Hal McRae
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R-H SP: Roger Clemens
L-H SP: Johan Santana
R-H RP: Dan Quisenberry
L-H RP: Billy Wagner