Here come the rest of the newcomers to the Hall of Fame ballot. Unless there are sentimental reasons or particular individual perversities at play, I can think of only one or two, maybe three, who aren’t likely to be one-and-done ballot entrants, even if they’ll never be Hall of Famers.
Brian Fuentes—Looked like a solid closer once upon a time; made an All-Star team with the Angels after succeeding Francisco Rodriguez in the role and leading the American League in saves approaching the break. Wasn’t really that good again and bounced up and down between closing and setup roles.
He retired after taking time off in 2012 for “personal reasons” that turned out to be plain missing his family. There are worse reasons. Fuentes wasn’t a Hall of Famer on the best day of his career, but he had his moments.
Livan Hernandez—Senor Octobure had his moments, too, and how, especially in the 1997 World Series, though you look on the surface and wonder how he could have been that Series’ MVP while surrendering eight earned runs over two starts. (Moises Alou probably should have won the Series MVP award.)
Hernandez made a long, serviceable career, but he wasn’t within a continent of being a Hall of Famer. He’s also dead flat broke: he filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, after losing most of the $53 million he made as a pitcher, showing almost $1 million in debt, and only $55,000 in assets.
Aubrey Huff—Looked like a comer in Tampa Bay but proved a journeyman for the most part, though he did become a critical element in the Giants’ 2010 World Series championship. Missed some time in 2011 dealing with an anxiety disorder; pretty much done after 2012.
Unless there’s a Hall of Fame for quotes (I’m just trying to find a way to fit in with these morons over here, he said about joining the slightly randy 2010 Giants), he goes to Cooperstown as a visitor only.
Jason Isringhausen—Probably fits among the “heartbreakers” about whom I wrote earlier this week. Isringhausen began as one of the heralded “Generation K” young Mets (Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson were the others) who were going to strike the living daylights out of all baseball but who ended up with another, sadder but jazzier sounding nickname: the Tommy John Trio.
In a 2016 radio interview, Isringhausen inadvertently revealed the real source of Generation K’s major league injury troubles: they’d been overworked ferociously in the minors and early in their Met careers. “In the minors if we didn’t pitch 9 innings, we got a talking to,” he told MLB Network Radio. “We didn’t watch pitch counts as much as we do today.”
Isringhausen, Pulsipher, and Wilson combined for 35 starts of at least 100 pitches in their 23-year-old seasons (Pulsipher’s was 1995; Isringhausen and Wilson, 1996), and eleven showed 120+ pitches. They all missed full seasons shortly after those and would never be the same.
Isringhausen made the longest and most serviceable career of the trio when he was converted to relief pitching after his trade to the Athletics. He became a capable closer for several playoff teams until a hip injury forced him to miss the 2006 Cardinals’s run to the World Series rings. (Rookie Adam Wainwright took over as that postseason’s closer.)
He was a good closer, not spectacular, and it’s probable that his career-long shoulder, elbow, and hip issues kept him from kicking himself to the Hall of Fame level. He also pitched an immaculate inning as a Cardinal and later became the only pitcher to return to pitch after three Tommy John surgeries. He returned to the Mets after they traded Francisco Rodriguez, and recorded his 300th and final save there.
Telling a New York columnist that he identified only too well with the heavy expectations and struggles attending the Mets’ current group of young howitzers, Isringhausen said dryly, “My elbow feels like I could come back and pitch. The rest of my body feels like I threw eighteen innings yesterday.”
Carlos Lee—He looked like a Hall of Famer from time to time and was a solid if not always spectacular slugger; he has six 100+ RBI seasons on his resume. But his mediocre defense, his below-average ability to use his speed to better advantage on the bases (you’d think a guy with a .727 stolen base percentage would steal more than his 10 per 162 lifetime or could have turned more doubles into triples), and his inability to stay out of the double play killed him.
Lee was a tough strikeout; he only averaged 76 per 162 games. But he wasn’t well disposed to walks, either—he averaged 51 per 162, including a measly five intentionals. He might have been a terrific slugger, but he wasn’t necessarily that feared.
Brad Lidge—Fine closer who shook off national humiliation (surrendered Albert Pujols’s monstrous three-run homer to force a sixth game in the 2005 National League Championship Series that Lidge’s team won anyway, to go to the World Series) to put up a 48 saves-in-48-opportunities including the postseason on the Phillies’ 2008 World Series winner. Fine, but not even close to a Hall of Famer.
Hideki Matsui—He was a sensation in Japan before he came to the States to hold left field for the Yankees for seven seasons, including their 2009 World Series winner. (For whom he was the Series MVP, and deserved it.) In fact, if you combine his Japanese and American careers, Matsui hit 507 home runs.
Unfortunately, Matsui may have come to the United States a couple of years too late, and he was a slugger with decent speed but not the Ichiro Suzuki type who could slash his way on base at will and score piles of runs. Once in the States, he was hurt by missing two thirds of one season and a third of another, too, not to mention his modest defense.
Kevin Millwood—Sinkerballer who had occasional moments, including one no-hitter on his own (with the Phillies, one of only two no-nos ever pitched in old Veterans Stadium) and one (with the Mariners) in which he started and pitched six no-hit innings before relievers Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League, and Tom Wilhelmsen finished with no-hit relief.
Millwood was part of a Braves rotation (with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz) in 1997-1999; the 1997 performance is often thought to make them the best rotation in the game’s history. Unfortunately, Millwood’s own career shook out as fair to middling, though he did lead the American League in ERA in 2005. Serviceable, not a Hall of Famer.
Kerry Wood—That 20-strikeout one-hitter in his Rookie of the Year season made him great before he really had a chance just to show he was good. The injury bug was a swarm in Wood’s case—fourteen trips to the disabled list—though he did eventually turn himself into a respectable reliever (he was The Mariano’s setup man for the 2010 Yankees’ postseason; he closed awhile and well enough) before he finally called it a career.
Like Isringhausen one of the great might-have-beens, Wood’s final appearance was classic: he struck out the only hitter he faced in his return to the Cubs, then retired as his son ran to the field to give Dad a hug. Wood, too, probably fits better among the heartbreakers.
Carlos Zambrano—Talented workhorse who looked like an ace one moment and, the next, looked like the wild kid with whom you couldn’t reason even if you managed to shackle him. He rarely met umps he couldn’t argue with, but he also argued with opponents and even teammates. His inability to get out of his own way and keep his temper to a slow boil probably kept him from pitching consistently like an ace.
His most infamous afternoon was the 2011 day the Braves pelted him for five home runs and, after throwing at Dan Uggla during the latter’s next at-bat following one of those bombs, he threw at Hall of Famer-in-waiting Chipper Jones twice in the same plate appearance, getting ejected promptly while the plate ump did a splendid job keeping the Braves from pouring onto the infield.
Zambrano stormed into the dugout, into the clubhouse, and out of the park threatening retirement. He rescinded the threat but the Cubs weren’t having it, docking him the rest of the year, then trading him to the Marlins in the off-season. His career ended with a whimper by comparison.
Off the field he was thought to be one of the friendliest and most charitable Cubs, but on the field he was his own worst enemy and probably did as much to keep his teams from winning as to help them win.