The best non-Hall of Famer at every position

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

January 27th, 2021

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s voting body went on a tear recently, electing at least two candidates to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in an unprecedented seven consecutive years from 2014-20.

That productivity pushed many candidates with passionate supporters -- from Tim Raines to Edgar Martinez to Mike Mussina to Larry Walker -- into Cooperstown, and it gives us an opportunity to survey the landscape outside the Plaque Gallery. The great Hal Bodley compiled an all-time roster of non-Hall of Famers for MLB.com back in 2016, but an impressive seven of his 11 picks went on to be elected. That means we can reset and “re-draft” a non-Hall roster 2.0. Below is our pick for the best player at every position who currently doesn’t stand among baseball’s “immortals.”

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 David Ortiz -- 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 is the only Hall-eligible player with at least 3,000 hits and 500 homers who is not enshrined (Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez have 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, Gil Hodges

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 as soon as the Golden Days Committee votes in the fall of 2021.

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

SS: Omar Vizquel
Vizquel, by virtue of his rising vote totals in recent years, stands out at this position, but recent allegations of domestic violence cast a shadow over his legacy and will potentially erode that support. Bill Dahlen, a turn-of-the-century star, rates very well by JAWS and WAR, but his pre-integration surroundings don't stack up to the competition that Vizquel and his peers faced. Vizquel provided excellent defense and durability, and he is the only non-Hall of Fame shortstop besides Alex Rodriguez (not eligible until 2022) with at least 2,500 hits.

Honorable mentions: Dahlen, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, Jim Fregosi (Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins not yet eligible)

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. But his momentum with BBWAA voters appears to have stalled, leaving the possibility that Bonds will grace this list for many, many years to come.

Honorable mention: Pete Rose, Manny Ramirez, Minnie Miñoso

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, Tony Oliva, 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. Three of them (Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas) are already in the Hall, and David Ortiz has a good shot once he’s eligible 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 (Ortiz not yet eligible)

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. But Clemens might have an even trickier time with veterans committee voting bodies than he has had with the BBWAA.

Honorable mention: Curt Schilling, Luis Tiant, Dave Stieb, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Orel Hershiser, Roy Oswalt, Eddie Cicotte (Tim Lincecum not yet eligible)

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, Jim Kaat, 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, especially until modern-day studs Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodríguez debut on the ballot. 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: Keith Foulke, Tom Gordon, Tom Henke, Firpo Marberry, Troy Percival, Kent Tekulve, John Wetteland (Nathan, Papelbon, 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, 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 2020)

C: Bill Freehan
1B: Rafael Palmeiro
2B: Lou Whitaker
3B: Dick Allen
SS: Omar Vizquel
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