Cal Ripken, Jr.
Retired 2001 Eligible for Hall: December 2006
Ripken is, in my opinion, the third-best shortstop ever. He's a Hall-of-Famer, not that anyone really disagrees. Ripken's reputation is mighty, and his numbers back it up absolutely. He should sail into the Hall, and rightfully so.
It will be interesting to see what happens to A-Rod if he finishes his career as a third baseman. There's not going to be anything keeping him from Cooperstown, but it will be more difficult to define his career in the historical sense if he splits his career evenly between short and third. As a shortstop, he's really second only to Honus Wagner. As a third baseman, he's right up there with Schmidt and Brett. If his career keeps going as planned (and this year is a very good sign), A-Rod will be among the elite in the Hall of Fame.
Retired 2004 Eligible for Hall: December 2009
Larkin really doesn't get enough credit for what he did. He's been underrated for two main reasons. One, he was multi-talented, but there was no one thing he was truly great at. Was he a good shortstop? Yes, he was a very good shortstop, if not an amazing one. Was he a good basestealer? Absolutely. Yes, only stole 377 career bases, but he did it with an impressive 83% success rate. Did he hit for a high average? Yes, a career .295 hitter, with 5 full seasons above .300. Was he a disciplined hitter? Yes, he had a career .371 OBP, with 939 career walks against just 817 career strikeouts. Was he a slugger? For a shortstop, absolutely. He slugged a career .444, whereas the league average for shortstops during that period was .361.
There is no one number that makes Barry look like a Hall-of-Famer. But when you put together all the things he did so well, there's no doubt in my mind that he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.
The other, perhaps more significant reason, that Barry is underrated, is that he was always overshadowed by someone else. He began his career in the shadow of Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken, Jr. He wasn't as good a hitter as Ripken, and he wasn't as good at defense as Ozzie was. Then, when Ripken and Ozzie started to fade and Barry entered his prime, three guys named Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar showed up and redefined how we saw the shortstop position. So there was never any significant amount of time where Barry was regarded as the best shortstop in baseball. But this is just an accident of history. When you compare Barry's career with other shortstops, he rates very well. He's not at the level of A-Rod, Robin Yount, or Luke Appling, but he's a notch above guys like George Davis, Ozzie Smith, and Joe Cronin. He is indeed a deserving Hall-of-Famer. I don't think there's any way he'll get in on the first ballot, but hopefully the voters will give him his due in time, as they did with Sandberg.
Retired 2001 Eligible for Hall: December 2006
Tony's no Hall-of-Famer, but he was a darn good shortstop for a long, long time. He was even among the 10 best players in the league for a couple of years. He doesn't get his credit, I think, because he bounced around to so many teams. But he was a very good shortstop and a fine hitter. His career hitting line is 347/399/288, compared to a league average of 332/407/264. The average for a shortstop over the same period was 321/370/260, so Tony was a valuable commodity: a good defensive shortstop who hit quite well for the position.
But after playing 8 seasons with the Blue Jays, Tony played two with the Padres, half a season with the Mets (he was traded back to Toronto in mid-season), one season with the Reds, one with the Yankees, one with the Indians, two more with the Blue Jays, and half a season with Milwaukee before being traded back to Toronto to finish his career. In this sense, he was similar to Bobby Bonds; someone whose true value was obscured by the raw number of teams he played for.
There's been a good deal of attention focused on Julio since his renaissance in Atlanta. While I can't deny that Julio is the best old non-pitcher ever, it doesn't make him a Hall-of-Famer. Julio does have a lot of hits (2521), but that's really his only true talent. He emerged as more of a slugger as his career went on, but the truth is that Julio spent most of his career as a below-average shortstop/second baseman. He's a fine hitter, and might be one of the 30 or 40 best shortstops ever, but he doesn't belong in Cooperstown.
Jeter isn't a Hall-of-Famer yet, but if he keeps his career going at a strong pace, he'll make it with ease. The sportswriters might just waive the 5-year waiting period to vote in their favorite son. Jeter was actually named baseball's poster child by Tim Kurkjian earlier this year. While I can't deny that Jeter calls his manager "Mr. Torre" and passes the butter without being asked, his qualities as a player have been overrated. Jeter has the reputation of being a great shortstop, but the truth is that his early career saw him as being below-average at his position. This goes against what most people think; they see Jeter make flashy plays and call him the second coming of Christ. But good fielding isn't about being flashy. You can't just trust your eyes, nor can you trust your biases. Jeter gets extra credit for being a Yankee. He gets extra credit for being "clutch," despite the fact that he plays on a team that gives its players more chances to play in clutch situations (like the World Series) than any other. Maybe the most clutch World Series performer in baseball is Frank Thomas, but we don't know it, because his team has never gotten there. There isn't equality of opportunity in "clutch." And of course, we all notice when Jeter makes great plays in "clutch" situations. But if he strikes out in the same situtation, our mind blocks it out because it doesn't fit with our pre-determined ideas. We should stop talking about Jeter being "clutch" and start talking about how good a hitter he is for a shortstop (386/461/314 career).
Retired 2003 Eligible for Hall: December 2008
No, he's not Cooperstown-worthy, but Jay Bell was one of the most underrated players of the past 20 years.
I could tell you that Omar Vizquel is not a good defensive shortstop, but you simply wouldn't believe me. Everyone believes that he is, and nothing I say will change the fact. But the ugly truth is that Omar is not nearly as strong defensively as people think. Steve Phillips advanced the argument that Omar is a Hall-of-Famer because his lifetime fielding percentage is higher than Ozzie Smith's. But that's the most bone-headed thing Steve Phillips has ever said. Lefty O'Doul's lifetime batting average is higher than Hank Aaron's; does that make him a Hall-of-Famer? Dave Kingman has more career home runs than Carlton Fisk. Does that make him a Hall-of-Famer? You can't apply this standard to any reasonable Hall-of-Fame argument. Ozzie Smith was more than just a fielding percentage, as is Omar. And when you consider the fact that Omar was not a great shortstop, and that he was a below-average hitter, we have to conclude that he's not a Hall-of-Famer.
(It was an odd week on espn.com when Steve Phillips composed his list of most underrated players, and Rob Neyer composed his list of the most overrated. Vizquel made both of them).
Nomar Garciaparra & Miguel Tejada
If Tejada can put together some more MVP-caliber campaigns and keep his career on the right path, he stands a good chance to make Cooperstown. Nomar was off to a Hall-of-Fame start, but will have to get his career going again if he wants to make it. And considering the nosedive his reputation has taken in the past 2 years, he might not make it even then.
The only other active shortstops with notable careers are Edgar Renteria and Jose Valentin. If they want to get in the Hall of Fame, they'll have to buy a ticket like everyone else.
Chipper's not much in the defense department (and that's an understatement), but he's been an excellent hitter for quite a long time now, and I think he's worked his way into the top 10 third basemen of all time. He would be better served now as a left fielder; I don't really know why the Braves insist on playing him at third.
Retired 2004 Eligible for Hall: December 2009
I don't really have a category for DHs, so I'll put Edgar here. The argument against Edgar is that as a DH, he can't really make the Hall since he didn't play every day. Well, it's patently silly to automatically exclude the DH from the Hall. It's a question of how much you help your team, and a DH just has to hit that much better to make up for the fact that they aren't playing the field.
Did Edgar hit that much better? You're damn right he did. Edgar was the best right-handed hitter of the 1990s. He compiled a 418/516/312 hitting line over 18 seasons, which is about as automatic an induction into Cooperstown as you can get. We still have to make up for the fact that Edgar contributed 0 to his team's defense. But here's a question for you: how much did Frank Thomas contribute to his team's defense? Or Harmon Killebrew? The answer, I think, is 0. My argument is that Edgar was more valuable to his team as a DH than he would have been in the field. Edgar was a much better asset to the Mariners contributing 0 to his team's defense than someone like Thomas or Killebrew, who actually had a negative effect on the team with their defense. If Edgar had played the field, he would have been less valuable, because his defensive negatives would have counteracted his offensive positives. To say that someone has to play the field to make the Hall is silly; we must look at the overall effect they had on team wins. These people think that Edgar would be a Hall-of-Famer if he had played the field, but the truth is that Edgar's absence from the field was not a detriment to his club, but an asset. While most teams are forced to deal with a hitter's negatives in the field to get his positives at the plate, the Mariners got all the positive and none of the negatives. So while some hitters might merit say, 300 points at the plate and take away 50 points in the field, Edgar was 300 at the plate and a 0 in the field. Any way you slice it, Edgar's hitting is enough in and of itself to get him into Cooperstown. But, sadly, he will never make it because the voters still hold a childish, petulant grudge against the DH rule.
Rolen is not, I repeat, not the second coming of Mike Schmidt, as some people think. Rolen is indeed an excellent third baseman, although he has (with the exception of his 2004 season) never been a really excellent hitter. The good news is that if he keeps fielding like this, he doesn't have to be excellent; just very good hitting will be enough to get him a plaque in Cooperstown. And he has enough credibility with the voters to get in easily.
Ventura is one of those guys that you just hate admit isn't a Hall-of-Famer. He had some truly excellent seasons in Chicago, and then with the Mets, but it's just not enough. He deserves to be remembered more than he is, because he was baseball's greatest third baseman between Wade Boggs and Chipper Jones. But he's not a Hall-of-Famer.
Other third basemen with notable careers include: Bobby Bonilla, Gary Gaetti, and active players such as Eric Chavez and Edgardo Alfonzo
Back tomorrow with the outfield ...