Take 5: Signs Bonds, Clemens not far from HOF

FILE PHOTO: Former New York Yankees player Mariano Rivera acknowledges fans before an exhibition game "Legend Series" honoring him, between the New York Yankees and the Miami Marlins, at the Rod Carew Stadium in Panama City March 15, 2014. Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees returned to Panama for the first time in 67 years on Saturday, offering one final goodbye to Mariano Rivera and bringing the career of the game's greatest closer full circle. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

All eyes are on Mariano Rivera as the first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and his longtime teammate, Derek Jeter, will get the bulk of the attention during next year’s voting. Come 2021, however, Cooperstown might finally have to confront its lengthy tussle with players connected to using performance-enhancing substances.

The 2019 class, headed by Rivera and also comprised of Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina, is once again devoid of PED-related drama, but not far behind that quartet, ace pitcher Roger Clemens (59.5 percent of votes) and home run king Barry Bonds (59.1 percent) continue to gain steam.

The threshold for induction into the Hall is 75 percent of votes; Clemens and Bonds each have three more years on the ballot. Here are a handful of signs that the two could finally hear their names called in the near future.

1. For starters, it’s worth establishing that neither Bonds nor Clemens tested positive for PEDs during their respective playing careers. Instead, they each went to trial for perjury; Clemens was found not guilty, while Bonds had his conviction of obstruction of justice dropped. Though there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that both men cheated in some form during their playing days, the fact that there is no definitive proof bodes well for their cases. The same cannot be said for Manny Ramirez, who was suspended twice for violations of MLB’s drug policy, and as a result, continues to hover around 20 percent in his third year on the ballot.

2. As for Bonds and Clemens, however, there continues to be a steady rise in voter support. Since seeing jumps of roughly 9 percent from 2015-2017, the two have settled for rises of nearly 3 percent each of the last two years. With a ballot lighter on big names next year, Bonds and Clemens will likely garner somewhere close to 65 percent of votes, putting them within 10 percent with two years to go. One only needs to look to Martinez, another controversial Hall of Fame candidate given a career primarily spent as a designated hitter, for an example of how much a player’s stock can rise toward the end of their run on the ballot. Martinez was at 27 percent in 2015 before seeing rises of 16, 15, 12 and 15 percent across the next four years.

3. On that note, a player’s last few years on the Hall of Fame ballot puts writers that have long ignored their credentials in a position where they need to take a final stance. The many who have omitted Bonds and Clemens over the years will soon realize the time is now to make a ruling on two of the best statistical players the game has ever seen. Are Clemens’ 354 wins (ninth-most in MLB history) and 4,672 strikeouts (3rd) really made invalid by suspicion alone? And what of Bonds’ record 762 home runs and seven MVP wins? It’s easy to take a stand against the two when you know you can change your mind in a year’s time, but when that luxury is stripped away, many voters will be likely to sing a different tune.

4. Speaking of voters, they get as many as 10 votes when casting their ballots. As a result of a logjam created in 2013, when nobody was voted into the Hall of Fame, which coincided with the first year on the ballot for Bonds and Clemens, voters have often struggled to narrow their list down to 10 names. That won’t be a problem in 2020: Of the 14 players who will return to the ballot, only five received more than 25 percent of votes this year. Curt Schilling (60.9 percent) appears to be next in line, and Larry Walker (54.6 percent) should see a big jump in his final year, but Omar Vizquel (42.8 percent) likely still has a ways to go. A shortage of votes won’t be an excuse next year.

5. What also bodes well for players linked to PEDs (because once one is elected, the levee will likely break) is a series of weaker ballots over the next two years. While Jeter is a shoo-in for induction next year, there are no clear first-ballot names behind him. As for 2021, Torii Hunter might have the best case based on his defensive prowess, but the road to the Hall for players of that design has never been easy. Further down the road, 2022 represents a whole other can of worms in the form of Alex Rodriguez, whose candidacy might somehow be even murkier than that of Bonds or Clemens. Looking ahead to A-Rod, writers might want to establish the precedent of PED-linked players beforehand, seeing as its going to come to a head in the form of the high-profile slugger.

--Kyle Brasseur, Field Level Media