NEW YORK -- Under new voting rules established this summer by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the annual Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot was released Monday on the earliest date in recent history.
Ken Griffey Jr. and his 630 homers and Trevor Hoffman and his National League-record 601 saves are the top candidates among a bevy of first-time qualifiers for the Class of 2016. Billy Wagner, who had 422 saves in 16 seasons for five teams, is another significant new name on the ballot.
Mike Piazza (69.9 percent of the vote last year), Jeff Bagwell (55.7 percent) and Tim Raines (55 percent) are the returnees with the best chances of being elected this time around.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held on July 24 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Griffey was selected first overall as a 17-year-old in the 1987 Draft and went on to play his first 13 seasons for the Mariners, ending his 22-year career with them in 2010. He batted .284 and produced 1,836 RBIs. Along the way, Griffey played parts of nine seasons with the Reds and part of one with the White Sox before returning to the Mariners for the final two.
Griffey was a four-time American League home run champion, hitting 56 homers in back-to-back seasons in 1997-98, and he won the AL MVP Award in '97 and was a 13-time All-Star.
Video: CIN@FLA: Griffey smashes his 600th career homer
Griffey would be both the first Mariner and the first No. 1 overall Draft pick to be inducted.
"I am truly honored and humbled to be associated with these people here," Griffey said when he was inducted into the Mariners' Hall of Fame in 2013. "I may have sometimes been standoffish; I didn't mean to. I just wanted to play baseball. That's the only thing that mattered: playing and winning ballgames for this team. I want to thank all of you, and the Mariners organization, for letting me be part of something special. I just want to say thank you."
Hoffman would be the third player to go into the Hall with an interlocking SD on his plaque. Dave Winfield and the late Tony Gwynn are the others. Hoffman had a 2.87 ERA and 61 wins in 1,035 games, plus a career-high 53 saves in 54 opportunities for a 1998 Padres club that lost to the Yankees in the World Series.
"I know it would be a nice little bow tie if it would happen and to have the All-Star Game in San Diego the same year," Hoffman, who pitched 16 of his 18 big league seasons for the Padres, said in noting that the Midsummer Classic is to be played at Petco Park on July 12. "That would be amazing."
Video: STL@MIL: Hoffman notches career save No. 600
Among the other newcomers on the latest ballot are Garret Anderson, David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds, Luis Castillo, Troy Glaus, Mike Lowell and Mike Sweeney.
The BBWAA ballot announcement commences the Hall of Fame voting season that includes elections by the 16-member Pre-Integration Committee and nominees for the Ford C. Frick Award and the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, all slated to be unveiled at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., from Dec. 7-10.
This year's version of the Veterans Committee will vote on six players, three executives and an organizer who were all active in baseball prior to Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947. The Frick Award voters will pick a baseball announcer who was a pioneer during that same period. The BBWAA honors a writer with the Spink Award for meritorious contributions to the baseball writing profession.
Video: Duquette on potential 2016 Hall Of Fame class
The new rules for the BBWAA ballot winnowed the rolls by about 125 voters, a Hall official said. While 625 ballots were sent out last year, about 475 were put in the mail on Monday. The ballots historically had been mailed just prior to Thanksgiving and had to be returned by New Year's Day. Voters will now have until Dec. 24 to mail their ballots.
The results are to be revealed on MLB Network on Jan. 6, with a news conference involving any of the electees to be held the following day.
In the past, all members of the BBWAA with more than 10 consecutive years of membership received a ballot. Under the new rules passed in July by the Hall's board of directors, members who have not actively been a member of the BBWAA for 10 years must apply every year for their ballot. The Hall then determines by the number of games an applicant covered in the previous season whether to issue a ballot.
As always, a candidate must have his name written on 75 percent of the ballots to be elected, and the electorate can vote for as many as 10 players.
In another change, the Hall will release a roster of all voters, but not how they voted. It's up to each individual whether to release his or her ballot. The BBWAA was established in 1908 and has been voting players into the Hall of Fame since elections began in 1936.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact a smaller group of voters will have on the election. In the last election, 549 ballots were cast and a player needed 412 votes to be elected.
Video: ARI@SD: Piazza hits his 400th career home run
Piazza, now in his fourth year on the ballot, fell 38 votes short last year. Bagwell and Raines fell 106 and 110 votes short, respectively.
Returnees Curt Schilling (39.2 percent), Roger Clemens (37.5), Barry Bonds (36.8) and Mike Mussina (24.6) are much further out. Like Piazza, Schilling, Bonds and Clemens are in their fourth year of eligibility.
Others who received sufficient support to remain on the ballot for 2016 are first basemen Fred McGriff and Mark McGwire; second baseman Jeff Kent; third baseman-designated hitter Edgar Martinez; infielder Nomar Garciaparra; and outfielders Larry Walker, Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa.
Another rule change seriously affects Raines, who is going into his ninth and next-to-last year on the BBWAA ballot. In the past, BBWAA eligibility was for as long as 15 years, but the Hall shortened that period by five years in 2014, grandfathering in three players who were already in the 11- to 15-year range: Don Mattingly, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell. It is also McGwire's final year on the ballot.
Mattingly's BBWAA eligibility ended with the last ballot. On this one, Trammell is in his 15th and final year and Smith his 14th. Smith received 30.2 percent of the vote and Trammell 25.1 percent last time.
A player must reach at least a five-percent threshold to be carried over to the next ballot until his 10 years of eligibility expires.
The ballot: Garret Anderson, Brad Ausmus, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Luis Castillo, Roger Clemens, David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds, Nomar Garciaparra, Troy Glaus, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Hampton, Trevor Hoffman, Jason Kendall, Jeff Kent, Mike Lowell, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Lee Smith, Sammy Sosa, Mike Sweeney, Alan Trammell, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker, Randy Winn.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.