We’re less than a week away from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023 being revealed, so this seems like a good time to take stock of the active players who could be enshrined one day. Last year I focused on the players with borderline cases and broke them up by their position group: infielders, outfielders and pitchers/DHs. This time around, I’ll examine the most likely future candidates by their ages.
This first chapter will cover the players who will not have played their age-30 seasons by the end of this year, while tomorrow we’ll deal with the older guys. Obviously, this list comes with the usual caveats when discussing younger players—injuries, production decline, etc.—and a lot can and will change as their careers progress. The idea is to look at the impressive paces these players already have set and project forward based upon where they are right now.
Only two players in their age-20 season—Mets catcher Francisco Álvarez and Rockies shortstop Ezequiel Tovar—reached the majors last year, so we’ll start with the promising group of guys who are a year older and will be entering their age-22 seasons in ’23.
Baseball Reference’s version of WAR is used throughout this piece.
22: Julio Rodríguez, CF, Mariners
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The American Rookie of the Year edges out his NL counterpart, Braves center fielder Michael Harris, and Rays shortstop Wander Franco. It’s no coincidence that all three have already signed long-term contracts with their respective teams.
Rodríguez was worth 6.2 WAR in his rookie season. That’s more than former wunderkinds and future Hall of Famers Bryce Harper and Miguel Cabrera had accumulated by the end of their age-21 seasons, which was both of their second MLB campaigns. Franco (6.1) and Harris (5.3) can say the same, but they can’t also lay claim to being one of just four players in MLB history to rack up 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases in a season by age 21, which Rodríguez did last season to join the ranks of Andruw Jones, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Trout (who absurdly logged 25/25 campaigns in both his age-20 and age-21 seasons).
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23: Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals
Fernando Tatis Jr. would’ve been the runaway candidate if not for his performance-enhancing drug suspension last season, which certainly doesn’t bode well for his Cooperstown odds. So, we’re left to choose from a few promising prospects whose early returns in the majors have featured flashes of both brilliance and mediocrity, and who have nowhere near enough of a track record to project their future output with much confidence.
Witt Jr., the Royals’ second pick in the 2019 draft, is perhaps the best player to highlight from the group of remaining 23s in ’23. The prized youngster became just the eighth player ever to record a 20 homer/30 stolen base season by age 22, but he finished last year right around league-average at the plate and was the league’s worst fielding shortstop by outs above average (–11). He could end up a third baseman long-term, or his defense could improve at shortstop. Either way, there’s no denying his raw talent, athleticism and potential to be a star. Let’s see what happens for him in Year 2.
24: Juan Soto, LF/RF, Padres
Soto had a bit of a down year in 2022 while split between the Nationals and Padres, yet still managed to record a 145 wRC+, the fifth time he’s logged a wRC+ of at least 140. His main competitor for this spot, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., has only done so once in his four seasons in the majors. Soto is the clear-cut choice here, illustrated by what the Padres were willing to give up last summer for two-and-a-half years of his services. But if you need some more convincing, here goes:
Soto ranks 21st all-time in WAR accumulated by the end of a hitter’s age-23 season, just ahead of longtime home run king Henry Aaron. Thirteen of the 20 hitters ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and two of the others are still active (Mike Trout, who ranks first with 37.2 WAR, and Manny Machado, who ranks 16th with 24.5). Soto also owns the highest career on-base percentage (.424) of anyone through their age-23 season (min. 500 plate appearances) since Ted Williams. Soto was the second-worst fielder in the majors last season according to outs above average, though his glove is better than his 2022 performance suggests. Defensive metrics can fluctuate from year to year, and he has been an above-average outfielder in previous seasons. It’s unlikely that Soto will ever be a great defender, but as was the case with his best historical comp, Teddy Ballgame, Soto’s bat more than makes up for his deficiencies in the outfield.
25: Ronald Acuña Jr., RF, Braves
Acuña’s age-21 campaign in 2019 gave an appetizing look at his potential. He raked 41 home runs and stole 37 bases, becoming just the fifth player in MLB history to match those totals. But ’20’s shortened season and a torn ACL in the summer of ’21 combined to rob the outfielder of more than a season’s worth of chances to add to his career totals during his athletic prime—and the latter may have affected his ability to do so going forward. Atlanta’s leadoff hitter lost a step last season compared to his previous years in the wake of his knee surgery and ended up getting caught stealing more than any other National League player, with a 29-for-40 success rate on the basepaths. Perhaps that extra notch of speed is gone … or perhaps he’ll regain it a year removed from surgery. He’s still just one of seven MLB players to have 100 home runs and 100 stolen bases by the end of his age-24 season—though it’s worth noting four of them (Vada Pinson, César Cedeño, Darryl Strawberry, Andruw Jones) fell off heavily after age 30 and didn’t reach the Hall of Fame, another (Alex Rodriguez) was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs and a sixth (Mike Trout) has had a tough time staying healthy.
Former No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman could end up with a compelling case if he lives up to his potential and guides the Orioles out of the doldrums, but with only one season under his belt it’s tough to take him over Acuña.
26: Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox
This was a four-man race between Devers, Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez, Braves sparkplug Ozzie Albies and Dodgers hurler Julio Urías, a quartet of World Series winners who all made the most of their early 20s.
Urías has this compelling statistic on his side: he’s one of only three pitchers to have debuted since 1990, start 100 games before his age-26 season and carry a career ERA under 3.00. The other two are Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez and his teammate and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. But betting on pitchers to stay healthy enough to sustain a Cooperstown-worthy career is risky, especially since Urías has already had shoulder surgery once.
Albies has a stronger case than you’d probably realize as the leader of this group in career WAR (15.3). But his first three years at the plate were quite a bit better than his last three, which have been interrupted by injuries, and his career 106 wRC+ doesn’t scream Hall of Fame.
Alvarez has a good argument as the best left-handed hitter in the game right now, along with Soto and Harper. The hulking Cuba native finished third place in AL MVP voting last season, when he earned his first career Silver Slugger award and All-Star appearance. His career 163 OPS+ ranks 19th all-time among hitters through their age-25 season or younger (min. 1,500 plate appearances). Twelve of the 18 players ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. Another is Shoeless Joe Jackson, who would be if not for the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and two more (Trout and Albert Pujols) will be some day. But Àlvarez was two years older than Devers when he started his MLB career and then had his 2020 campaign wiped out by a knee injury. A designated hitter like Alvarez needs gaudy power totals to make the Hall, and he doesn’t even have 100 career home runs yet.
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I’ll take Devers, who just recorded a career-high 141 wRC+ and earlier this month signed a 10-year, $313.5 million extension, is poised to be the face of the next Red Sox contender … whenever that team is constructed around him. We criticize Boston for letting valuable cornerstone after cornerstone leave for other teams, but it speaks volumes that Devers is the one offensive star from the 2018 World Series team who the Red Sox retained long term. And for good reason: Among players with fewer than 3,000 plate appearances through their age-25 season, Devers ranks third all-time with 1,380 total bases, behind only Giancarlo Stanton and Lou Gehrig.
27: Sandy Alcantara, SP, Marlins
This group is pretty thin. Who else could we pick other than Alcantara? Dylan Cease, the 2022 MLB walks leader? Or maybe Zac Gallen, who just started 30 games for the first time in his fourth season? Cody Bellinger would’ve been a good bet after the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series title, but they non-tendered him after two abysmal seasons and is now looking to turn around his cratering career after signing a one-year deal with the Cubs
That’s to take nothing away from Alcantara, who posted a true workhorse campaign last season in winning the NL Cy Young award. But he still has a long way to go until he can start dreaming about Cooperstown—his 8.0 WAR in ’22 nearly matched his output in his five previous seasons combined (8.2).
28: Shohei Ohtani, DH/SP, Angels
This shapes up as a classic argument of peak vs. longevity. In the corner of the former, we have Ohtani, a singular talent who’s reshaped our view of what’s possible to accomplish in the modern game as a two-way player, excelling simultaneously as a pitcher and hitter. He’d be the winner of back-to-back MVPs if Aaron Judge didn’t break the American League regular-season home run record last year, and he’ll be the preseason favorite for the award as long as he stays healthy. Representing the other side of the argument is Carlos Correa, a former No. 1 overall pick who debuted at age 20 and has been compiling solid statistics for winning teams for almost a decade.
Correa may end up being one of the more polarizing Hall of Fame candidates in history. By newer statistics such as WAR and Statcast-driven analysis, he’s been one of the most valuable players in the league since winning the AL’s Rookie of the Year award in 2015, largely thanks to his excellent hit tools and cannon arm on defense. He already ranks 35th in JAWS among shortstops, higher than a pair of Hall of Famers in Phil Rizzuto and Rabbit Maranville. But Correa has won only one Gold Glove and has never led the American League (let alone the majors) in any major hitting statistic. He’s never hit 30 home runs and has just 33 career stolen bases, including six over the last six years. He’s also only topped 140 games played once in the past six seasons, so even if his much examined ankle never causes him trouble, he’s had enough time on the injured list to make you wonder if he’ll hold up over the next decade-plus. And all of that comes before we even get to Houston’s sign-stealing scandal.
I typically favor excellent peak performers over reliable compilers, and that’s where I’ll fall here, especially if Correa’s longevity case falls apart during his 30s. It’s hard for me to imagine voters bypassing the chance to enshrine Ohtani if he keeps up his double act for much longer.
29: Francisco Lindor
Lindor was underrated with the small-market Guardians, and now he seems to be underrated because impatient Mets fans were ready to throw him under the bus after a disappointing first half of his first season in New York. Well, if you’ve let the negativity get to you, let me remind you of his credentials.
The only primary shortstop in MLB history to match both Lindor’s number of home runs (184) and stolen bases (125) through his age-28 season is Alex Rodriguez. Lindor has achieved four top-10 MVP finishes and four All-Star Game berths, and won two Silver Sluggers and two Golden Gloves (including one Platinum Glove). He’s also extremely durable, having missed only 68 games over the last seven years, or an average of less than 10 per season. And as good of a defensive shortstop as Correa is, when it looked like he was going to end up with the Mets this offseason, Correa talked with Lindor on the phone and assured him he’d move to third base in deference to Lindor. Over his eight seasons, Lindor has 36.6 WAR, so if he can record just two more five-win seasons—his WAR last year was 5.4—and combine for just 10 more WAR for the remainder of his career, he’d retire as a top-20 shortstop all time. There are currently 23 shortstops in the Hall of Fame; Lindor is in great position to add to that number.
Alex Bregman is the second-most viable candidate. Among primary third basemen with at least 3,000 plate appearances through their age-28 seasons, Bregman ranks 11th all-time with a 137 OPS+, ahead of several Hall of Famers and just a single point below Mike Schmidt and Chipper Jones. But at this age, both those guys had around 50 more home runs, 60–70 more stolen bases and Jones had 233 more hits than Bregman does now. He could certainly get there, as well, but Lindor has a better shot at this point in their careers.