MINNEAPOLIS -- Until the announcement of the 2021 National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot on Monday, Twins fans hadn't experienced much Cooperstown-related excitement since St. Paul native Jack Morris and Jim Thome were inducted on the '18 ballot. Minnesota hadn't even been represented on the ballot in subsequent years until fan favorites Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins made their debuts among this year's group.
Of all the baseball legends enshrined in the Hall of Fame, only four are immortalized as members of the Twins: Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Kirby Puckett.
Many others -- like Morris and Thome -- have passed through the Metrodome and Target Field as part of Hall of Fame careers before being enshrined as members of other teams. They won't be immortalized with Twins caps on their heads, but the organization will always remain part of their Hall of Fame history.
Let's not draw that distinction as part of that list, one in which we explore the five best players in Twins history not yet enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Even so, the five players on this list would almost certainly go into the Hall as members of the Twins, which gives fans around Twins Territory an added incentive to follow the potential paths to Cooperstown in the coming years of those whose opportunities haven't already come and gone.
1) Joe Mauer (2004-18)
Status: Will become eligible on 2024 ballot
Mauer still has a few years to go before he will join the ballot, but he clearly represents the Twins' best chance at having another inductee in Cooperstown in the near future. Though concussion issues forced a move from catcher to first base in the later years of his career, both Mauer's accumulation of offensive stats across his 15-year career and his unmatched peak at the catcher position give him a strong case for inclusion.
All this has been said before: Not only is Mauer the only American League catcher to ever win a batting title, but he also did it three times in 2006, '08 and '09, leading the league in hitting, on-base percentage and slugging percentage with 28 homers and 30 doubles during his '09 MVP season. Don't forget the five Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Glove Awards, either.
Consider all of the following: When Mauer was a primary catcher from 2004-13, his 44.7 WAR, per Baseball-Reference, far outpaced second-place Victor Martinez (28.2) among players to appear in at least 45 percent of their games at catcher. Among those primary catchers with more than 5,000 plate appearances since 1900, Mauer's career 124 OPS+ ranks 10th, and eight of the nine players ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame.
2) Tony Oliva (1962-76)
Status: BBWAA eligibility expired in 1996; on 2021 Golden Days Era ballot
Oliva came so close to finally earning his place in Cooperstown in 2014, when he fell one vote shy of the 75 percent necessary for admission to the Hall of Fame on the Golden Era Committee ballot. His next opportunity was set to come up in '17, but the Hall of Fame reorganized its committee voting process and pushed back the next election to '20. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic once more pushed that tally back another year, to '21.
It will have been worth the wait if Oliva is finally enshrined for an exemplary career that was cut short by a series of knee injuries that first relegated him to designated hitter and then forced him into retirement while his bat might still have had something left.
When Oliva burst onto the scene in his 1964 rookie season, he led the AL in runs, hits, doubles and batting average and was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year Award. He and Ichiro Suzuki remain the only rookies to win batting titles since 1900, and Oliva followed that up by becoming the first player to win batting titles in his first two full seasons as he also led the AL in hits in '65 and '66. He was a key part of the lineup that took the Twins to their first World Series in '65 and led the AL in hits five times in all before he retired with 1,917 hits and a career .304 average.
3) Jim Kaat (1961-73)
Status: BBWAA eligibility expired in 2003; on '21 Golden Days Era ballot
Oliva isn't the only Twin to fall barely short of enshrinement. Kaat was also on that last Golden Era ballot and earned 10 of the 12 votes necessary for a place in the Hall of Fame for the 25-year career that he finished with a 3.45 ERA and 2,461 strikeouts in 4,530 1/3 innings. The first 15 of those seasons were spent in the Senators/Twins franchise, and he relocated to Minneapolis with the club in 1961 before winning 18 of his 42 starts in the '65 World Series season.
His longevity and consistency as a pitcher with the Twins, White Sox, Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals were matched only by his sure-handedness in the field, which netted him 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, tied with Brooks Robinson for second all-time and two shy of the record held by Greg Maddux.
4) Johan Santana (2000-07)
Status: Fell off BBWAA ballot in 2018
Santana got his shot at the Hall of Fame in 2018 and immediately fell off the ballot after failing to secure the 5 percent of the votes necessary for another year of eligibility. Like Oliva, Santana is almost certainly a victim of a career shortened by injury -- in this case, an anterior capsule tear in his pitching shoulder that cost him the entire '11 season and later led to his retirement after he last pitched in '12 at the age of 33.
Before Santana lost the tail end of his career, he was one of the unquestioned elites of the sport during his eight seasons with the Twins and his first three with the Mets. In his true peak from 2004-06, Santana led the AL in strikeouts in all three seasons and in ERA twice, culminating in a Major League triple crown in '06, when he won his second Cy Young Award. He would have had three consecutive Cy Young Awards had he not lost the '05 honor to Bartolo Colon, who posted worse stats than Santana across the board.
Randy Johnson and Maddux are the only pitchers to have won Cy Young Awards in three consecutive seasons. Of the eight players in MLB history with three Cy Young Awards, seven are in the Hall of Fame (the eighth is Roger Clemens). If Santana had joined that club, it would have been much tougher for him to lose his opportunity so soon.
5) Joe Nathan (2004-11)
Status: Will become eligible on 2022 ballot
Several players could have rounded out this list, but we'll highlight Nathan, the greatest reliever in club history and among the most decorated in the ranks of MLB closers. It's an uphill battle for relievers to earn induction to Cooperstown, as only eight are currently enshrined and Billy Wagner received around one-third of the votes as part of the 2020 ballot. With that said, Nathan actually has a reasonably strong case that could appeal to both traditionalists and analysts alike.
Going down the list of relievers according to JAWS, a benchmark for Hall of Famers by position, Nathan actually ranks ahead of Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter, Trevor Hoffman and Rollie Fingers. Nathan's career 2.87 ERA also ranks favorably among that group, and his 377 saves across 16 seasons with the Giants, Twins, Rangers, Tigers and Cubs rank eighth in MLB history and encompass an elite span from 2004-09 during which he recorded at least 36 saves in six consecutive seasons (for the traditionalists) and posted a 237 ERA+ during that span (for the analysts). In comparison, Mariano Rivera had the same ERA+ during his best six-year stretch.
Keep an eye on how Wagner's vote totals trend in the next few years for a gauge on how Nathan might fare once he, too, hits the ballot.