While many of the game’s brightest stars are early-round Draft picks or big ticket international signings, many others carve their careers out from the bottom. In some cases, those careers are successful enough to earn a spot on the Hall of Fame ballot. These unlikely candidates may not have been drafted first overall, but their efforts landed them this year’s ballot.
Here’s a look at the most unlikely candidates who could receive their call to the Hall in 2022:
Before he was Big Papi, Ortiz was fighting to keep his big league dreams alive in Minnesota in 2002. After joining the Twins as a player to be named later in a 1996 trade with the Mariners, Ortiz had to fight for playing time in Minnesota. He was coming off of his finest season in ’02, slugging a then career-high 20 home runs with a line of .272/.339/.500 in 125 games, but it wasn’t enough to convince the Twins’ front office to keep him around, and he was released in the offseason.
Both Minnesota and Seattle didn’t realize what they had, but the Red Sox reaped the benefits and gained one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Ortiz spent the rest of his 20-year career with the Sox, where he hit 483 more homers, made 10 All-Star squads and won seven Silver Slugger Awards. Ortiz was 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, there was never really any expectation that Buehrle would become a Hall of Fame-caliber player, let alone a Major Leaguer. But that didn’t stop the southpaw from becoming one of the best pitchers in baseball during the mid-2000s and early-2010s. Buehrle went on to win a World Series ring with the White Sox in 2005, was a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner. His marquee moment came on July 23, 2009, though, when he tossed the 18th perfect game in MLB history against the Tampa Bay Rays.
If elected into 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.
Back in 1997, the addition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks to MLB meant an expansion draft would be needed to fill the two rosters. Then with the Astros, Abreu was left unprotected and was selected with the sixth pick by the Rays. The same day he was selected, the Rays flipped him to Philadelphia for shortstop Kevin Stocker. It’s safe to say that it was a mistake by both the Astros and the Rays. Two decades later, Abreu finds himself one step closer to baseball’s highest honor. Abreu spent nine years in Philly, hitting .303 with a .928 OPS during that time. He earned two All-Star nods, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award before heading to the Yankees in 2006.
The Giants selected Nathan out of New York’s Stony Brook University in the sixth round of the 1995 Draft, thinking his future was at shortstop. After one unproductive year in the infield, though, he was converted into a starting pitcher. And much like at the plate, his results on the mound were relatively unimpressive. Nathan started 94 games in the Minors with a 4.87 ERA to boot, but San Francisco called him up 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 had a successful stint as a big league reliever soon after and was traded to Minnesota prior to 2004. Over 600 games and 376 saves later, Nathan proved to be one of the most dominant closers in baseball for the next decade, making six All-Star appearances, four of those coming with the Twins.
The 22nd round of the 1990 Draft wasn’t exactly ripe with talent: only four of the 26 players chosen made it to the big leagues. Of those four, two had a negative career WAR and one played in just a single game. The outlier of that group was Pettitte. The Yankees found themselves an ace with the 594th overall pick as Pettitte was a staple in the Bronx 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 number 46 in his honor. And the rest of the 1990 Draft for the Yankees wasn’t too shabby, either. Two rounds later, they found another future Hall of Fame candidate and Pettitte’s longtime battery mate, Jorge Posada.
It’s not uncommon for players to go from average to All-Star, but it’s a bit more rare to see one go from average to Hall of Fame hopeful. Prior to the 1997 season, San Francisco swung a deal with Cleveland to send star third baseman Matt Williams to Ohio for Kent, Julián Tavárez and José Vizcaíno. At the time, Kent was about to go into his age-29 season and had good, but not great, numbers. With a .777 OPS and an average of about 16 home runs per year, Kent looked set to fill in as the Giants’ everyday second baseman, a position they struggled to find a regular for in the year prior. The move immediately paid dividends as Kent set a then-career-high in homers with 29 that season. Three years later, Kent was a National League MVP and a major contributor for the Giants batting behind Barry Bonds. Kent added three additional top-10 MVP voting finishes and four Silver Slugger Awards and ended his career as the all-time leader in home runs for a second baseman.
Jones was always destined for greatness as one of the game’s hottest prospects prior to his debut at 19 years old in 1996, but it’s where he comes from that makes him an unlikely Hall of Famer. Prior to Jones’ debut, the small island nation of Curaçao was not exactly a baseball hotbed; Jones was just the third MLB player to hail from the Caribbean country. His success opened the door for future prospects, though, as 13 fellow countrymen 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 earning an All-Star nod five times throughout his 17-year career. Should he be elected into the Hall, he’d be the first player from Curaçao to be enshrined, but his success ensures that there will be many more candidates to come.