Debate certain for future Hall classes
Thin air may hurt Walker; allegations could affect others
Randy Johnson retired the night before Andre Dawson -- the sole member of the class of 2010 -- was officially voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, which serves as a fitting preview for the Big Unit's eventual coronation in Cooperstown in 2015, when the 303-game winner and 4,875-time strikeout artist will first become eligible and will almost certainly be enshrined.
More history-makers will be on the ballot soon enough, and the baseball world will watch in 2013, in particular, as judgment begins on the controversial, steroid-accusation-clouded careers of MLB's all-time home run king, Barry Bonds, one of its most accomplished pitchers, Roger Clemens, and 600-homer-club member Sammy Sosa.
Here's a quick overall look at which players have the best chance of making it to the Hall in the next four years, and some who might someday pull a surprise.
CLASS OF 2011
Jeff Bagwell: He won a Rookie of the Year Award, a Most Valuable Player Award, he hit 449 home runs, drove in 1,529 runs, scored 1,517 runs and put up Hall-caliber career numbers in on-base percentage (.408) and slugging (.540) while batting .297 in 15 seasons, all with the Houston Astros.
Rafael Palmeiro: There's no question about the numbers here -- he's the fourth member of the 3,000-hit, 500-homer club, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray. That would normally make him a no-brainer for Hall of Fame entry. But his involvement in a headline-making performance-enhancing drug scandal of his own figures to loom large in voters' minds.
Larry Walker: Injuries shortened some of his seasons and he tailed off toward the end of his 17-year career, but Walker's body of work was excellent and, at times, flat-out brilliant. Walker retired with a .313 lifetime batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage, hit 383 homers and drove in 1,311 runs while scoring 1,355 times. From 1997-99, Walker was astonishingly good, hitting .366, .363 and .379, the latter two seasons earning him batting titles, and leading the National League in homers with 49 in his MVP season of '97. Voters will have to decide whether Walker's numbers were legitimate or more a product of the thin Denver air during those years.
Juan Gonzalez: Like Walker, injuries took their toll on Gonzalez, who retired at the young age of 36 in 2005. But his prime years, most with the Texas Rangers, were huge. "Juan Gone" topped the 40-homer mark five times (plus recording another year with 39 long balls and another with 35) and drove in more than 100 runs eight times. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .295, with 434 homers, 1,404 RBIs and two MVP Awards (1996 and '98).
Also: John Franco (424 saves, 2.89 career ERA) and John Olerud (three Gold Gloves, one batting title, 1,230 RBIs, .863 career OPS).
CLASS OF 2012
Bernie Williams: One of the key cogs of the Yankees' four World Series championships from 1996-2000 patrolled center field for 17 seasons and hit .297 for his career with 287 homers, 1,257 RBIs, four Gold Gloves and five All-Star Game appearances. But regular-season stats don't tell the whole story and won't make or break Williams' Hall candidacy. Williams still owns postseason records for extra-base hits, doubles and RBIs. He's no shoo-in, but he won't be easy to cross off the list, either.
Also: Vinny Castilla (320 homers, 1,105 RBIs), Javy Lopez (.287, 260 homers, primarily as catcher).
CLASS OF 2013
Bonds: The author of many of the greatest offensive seasons of this era also happened to hit 762 home runs in his career and 73 homers in 2001. The numbers make him a clear, undisputed choice, but writers have a tough decision to make here ...
Clemens: ... and here, with 354 wins, a .658 winning percentage, seven Cy Youngs and an MVP ...
Sosa: ... and here, with 609 homers, which ranks sixth all-time, and 1,667 RBIs, which ranks 26th.
Craig Biggio: Biggio played 20 seasons, all with the Astros, had a reputation as a solid citizen and put up one of the all-important numbers for Hall-worthiness: 3,000 hits. The fact that he played most of his career at second base will help, too. Not that he needs help.
Mike Piazza: As if the fact that he's the all-time leader in home runs by a catcher -- 396 of his career total of 427 -- weren't enough, Piazza also hit .308 for his career and put up a lifetime OBP of .377 and a slugging percentage of .545. He seems like an easy choice for Cooperstown.
Also: Curt Schilling (six All-Star Games, over 3,000 strikeouts, the Bloody Sock and a sterling postseason resume), Kenny Lofton (.299 average, .372 OBP, 1,528 runs, 2,428 hits), David Wells (239 wins, 3,439 innings).
CLASS OF 2014
Greg Maddux: The Mad Dog heads up what figures to be a fruitful class, with a Cooperstown-cinch 355 wins to go along with his 3.16 lifetime ERA, four Cy Young Awards and 18 Gold Gloves.
Tom Glavine: Maddux's longtime lefty buddy in Atlanta is right behind the right-hander, with 305 wins, five 20-win seasons, two Cy Youngs, a 3.54 career ERA and a .600 winning percentage. Done deal.
Jeff Kent: He hit 377 homers, drove in 1,518 runs, won an MVP, had a legendary competitive scowl and, most important for his Hall of Fame future, he was a second baseman. That means he's practically a given for the Hall.
Frank Thomas: He's a member of the 500-homer club, which used to mean automatic enshrinement, so the Big Hurt has a good head start. Then you add the 1,701 RBIs, the .301 career batting average, .419 OBP, .555 slugging and two MVPs, and the picture becomes very clear. If he's not a mortal lock, he's close to it.
Mike Mussina: Double-digit victories in 17 straight seasons is no joke, and when it's all added up, 270 victories in this era gives the Moose a strong case for Cooperstown. The .638 winning percentage is very strong, and even though he didn't win a Cy Young, he finished in the top five of the voting six times.
Also: Moises Alou (.303 career average, 332 homers, 1,287 RBIs).
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.