The month of May has come and gone, and seemingly taken with it two excellent careers.
Ryan Howard hit .184 at Triple-A for the Braves and was released on May 8. A week later, Atlanta star first baseman Freddie Freeman was lost for a few months when he fractured his thumb. The Braves signed James Loney to a minor league deal then traded for Matt Adams rather than rekindle a relationship with Howard.
Joe Nathan had a 6.19 ERA at Triple-A for the Nationals when he was released on the last day of May — when Washington had the NL’s worst bullpen ERA.
Nevertheless, Howard’s agent, Casey Close, told me Howard would like to continue trying to play. Nathan’s agent, Dave Pepe, said his client was home in Tennessee and would announce in a few weeks what his intentions are.
If this is the end — and it sure looks that way — then take a bow, gentlemen. Will Howard or Nathan be good enough to get in the Hall of Fame? Probably not. But they will get on the Hall ballot, which I think is an underappreciated great honor.
Roughly 1 percent of players reach the Hall. But to be in the next percent or two is really something — better than 97-98 percent of those who ever have played. That is the group that generally reaches the ballot, but not Cooperstown.
A six-member screening committee looks at every player who has been retired five years and who played at least 10 seasons. It takes two votes to be placed on the ballot, which the larger voting body receives each December.
Thus, if your major league career ended in 2016 — as it appears probable for Howard and Nathan — then you would be eligible for the ballot sent in December 2021. And that looks as if it will be a ballot jammed with new entries without certitude any actually will gain election:
1. David Ortiz
Based on accomplishment alone, he likely would waltz in. He hit 541 homers and was a dominant postseason performer and presence for three champions. But he reportedly was on the list of 100-ish players who failed survey drug testing in 2003, plus he mainly racked up his stats as a DH. My suspicion is that by the time he is eligible, the larger voting body will be more lenient on both issues.
2. Alex Rodriguez
Based on accomplishment alone, he would waltz in. Rodriguez was a three-time MVP with 696 career homers and generally is viewed as one of the handful of greatest players ever. But Rodriguez admitted to steroid use then was banned for all of 2014 because of his ties to Biogenesis. His popularity has grown with his TV work, and he clearly would benefit if Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens eventually reach the Hall.
3. Joe Nathan
He was not as good as Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner, who are having difficulty gaining Hall traction. But among pitchers who have thrown at least 900 innings, his .206 batting average against is fifth best, and Wagner is the only reliever who is better. Nathan’s 377 saves are eighth best. He had 35 or more saves nine times, which is topped by just Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
4. Ryan Howard
Modern analytics are Howard’s enemy because they take his poor baserunning/fielding into greater account. But before they became rampant, Howard won an MVP and finished top-five three other times. He had four seasons of at least 35 homers and 135 RBIs. The only player to do that more was Babe Ruth.
5. Jonathan Papelbon
The lingering memory will be his 2015 dugout fight with Bryce Harper. But his 368 saves are ninth all-time. His 177 ERA-plus trails just Rivera and Wagner all-time (minimum 700 innings). Plus, he has a strong postseason résumé, including being a championship closer in 2007.
6. Mark Teixeira
He talked about getting to 500 homers, but ended with 409 — to go along with five Gold Gloves and eight seasons with at least 30 homers/100 RBIs, as many as Jeff Bagwell and Harmon Killebrew.
7. Tim Lincecum
He is kind of Sandy Koufax Lite — four seasons from 2008-11 when he was probably the majors’ best starter, twice winning the Cy Young, three times winning the strikeout crown and being the ace on the 2010 champs. But his career mostly plummeted thereafter, albeit with two more rings (one of which he helped get with terrific bullpen work) and two no-hitters. He was “The Freak,” which will make him forever beloved in San Francisco, but probably not good enough for Cooperstown.
8. Jimmy Rollins
He reminds me of Johnny Damon — the statistics are not as special as you expect, but watching them, you thought you were watching great, clutch players. Rollins has an MVP and four Gold Gloves. It will be interesting to see how Omar Vizquel does on the upcoming ballot, because who do you think had a better career, Vizquel or Rollins?
9. Prince Fielder
He might not have made it with a full career, but it will be near impossible after having to stop playing at 32 with a neck injury. He reached 50 homers one year, won three Silver Sluggers and his 134 OPS-plus is the same as Al Kaline.
10. David Wright
Maybe he still will play. But, like Fielder, his chance probably evaporated with injury. Still, even with the DL-wrecked seasons, his .867 OPS is sixth most all-time for those who played at least 75 percent of their games at third base (minimum 3,000 plate appearances), and if you make it 5,000 plate appearances, he is fourth all-time behind Chipper Jones, Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews.
Notable: Because they won an MVP (2006) and Cy Young (2007), Justin Morneau and Jake Peavy also have a good chance of making the ballot. Sadly, we probably will never know if Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura would have made it since both died, making 2016 their final year.
Carl Crawford once looked like he might have a shot for his speed/defense combo, and few players ever entered the majors with the fanfare of Jeff Francoeur. Finally, a hat tip to dancing fool David Ross, who got the Fame part right at the end of a career in which he hit .229.