While many of the game’s brightest stars are first-round picks or big-ticket international signings, many more are carving out careers from the bottom up. In some cases, these careers are successful enough to earn a spot on the Hall of Fame ballot. These unlikely candidates may not have been selected first overall, but their efforts won them this year’s ballot.
Here’s a look at the more unlikely candidates who could receive their Hall call in 2022:
Before being Big Papi, Ortiz fought to keep his league dreams in Minnesota in 2002. After joining the Twins as a player who would later be named in a trade with the Mariners in 1996, Ortiz had to fight for playing time in Minnesota. He was coming off his best season in 2002, scoring 20 home runs with a .272 / .339 / .500 line in 125 games, but that wasn’t enough to convince the Twins’ front office. to keep him, and he was released during the offseason.
Minnesota and Seattle didn’t realize what they had, but the Red Sox reaped the rewards and acquired one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Ortiz spent the remainder of his 20-year career with the Sox, where he completed 483 more home runs, made 10 All-Star teams and won seven Silver Slugger Awards. Ortiz has been a key cog in three World Series titles for Boston, winning ALCS MVP in 2004 and World Series MVP in 2013.
Coming out of Jefferson College in the 38th round of the 1998 Draft, you never really expected Buehrle to become a Hall of Fame caliber player, let alone a Major Leaguer. But that didn’t stop the southpaw from becoming one of baseball’s top pitchers in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Buehrle went on to win a World Series ring with the White Sox in 2005, was five times All-Star and four times Gold Glove. His defining moment came on July 23, 2009, when he scored the 18th perfect game in MLB history against the Tampa Bay Rays.
If elected to the Hall of Fame, Buehrle would be the second-lowest draft pick to make it to Cooperstown, ahead of only 62nd round pick Mike Piazza.
In 1997, the addition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks to the MLB meant that an expansion draft would be needed to fill both lists. Then with the Astros, Abreu was left unprotected and was selected with the sixth pick by the Rays. On the same day he was selected, the Rays sent him back to Philadelphia for shortstop Kevin Stocker. It’s safe to say that was an Astros and Rays mistake. Two decades later, Abreu is approaching baseball’s highest honor. Abreu spent nine years in Philly, hitting .303 with a .928 OPS during that time. He earned two All-Star nominations, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award before traveling to the Yankees in 2006.
The Giants picked Nathan of Stony Brook University in New York City in the sixth round of the 1995 Draft, believing his future was on a shortstop. After an unproductive year in the infield, however, he was converted to a starting pitcher. And just like on the plate, his results on the mound were relatively unimpressive. Nathan started 94 games in minors with a 4.87 ERA, but San Francisco called him anyway in 1999 and he had a 4.70 ERA in two years with the club. After spending all of 2001 and most of 2002 in the minors, Nathan enjoyed a successful stint as a big league reliever shortly thereafter and was traded to Minnesota before 2004. Over 600 games and 376 saves later Nathan proved to be one of the firmest dominants in baseball for the next decade, making six All-Star appearances, four of them with the Twins.
The 22nd round of the 1990 draft was not quite ripe for talent: only four of the 26 chosen players reached the big league. Of those four, two had negative career WARS and one only played one game. The outlier of this group was Pettitte. The Yankees found themselves an ace with the 594th pick overall as Pettitte was a Bronx fixture for 15 of his 18 years in MLB. He ended his career with five World Series rings, an ALCS MVP award and three All-Star nods. The Yankees also retired the No. 46 in his honor. And the rest of the 1990 draft for the Yankees wasn’t too bad either. Two rounds later, they found another future Hall of Fame contender and longtime Pettitte drummer, Jorge Posada.
It’s not uncommon for players to go from Average to All-Star, but it’s a bit rarer to see a player go from Average to Hall of Fame full of hope. Prior to the 1997 season, San Francisco made a deal with Cleveland to send all-star third baseman Matt Williams to Ohio for Kent, Julián Tavárez and José Vizcaíno. At the time, Kent was about to start his season at the age of 29 and had good, but not so good, numbers. With a 0.777 OPS and averaging around 16 home runs per year, Kent looked set to fill the role of the Giants’ daily second baseman, a position they struggled to find a start for the year before. The move immediately paid off as Kent set a career-high with 29 homers that season. Three years later, Kent was a National League MVP and a major contributor to the Giants at bat behind Barry Bonds. Kent added three more Top 10 MVP votes and four Silver Slugger Awards and ended his career as an all-time leader in the circuits for a second baseman.
Jones has always been destined for greatness as one of the game’s most promising prospects before his debut at age 19 in 1996, but it’s where he comes from that makes him an unlikely Hall of Famer. Before Jones’ debut, the small island nation of Curacao wasn’t exactly home to baseball; Jones was only the third MLB player to come from the Caribbean nation. His success opened the door to future prospects, as 13 compatriots have since followed in his footsteps, including All-Stars Kenley Jansen, Ozzie Albies, Jonathan Schoop and Andrelton Simmons.
Jones lived up to the hype, winning 10 Gold Glove Awards and winning an All-Star nod five times in his 17-year career. If elected into the hall he would be the first Curacao player to be listed, but his success ensures that there will be many more candidates to come.