With all the attention being paid to Joe Mauer over the past year, it's easy to forget that we had a pretty good catcher that we dealt to make room for Mauer, and that he's gone on to have a very interesting career.
With that said, the short answer to the question in the title of this essay is simply, "No." But a more nuanced answer would add, "Not yet, anyway." While reprinting all of Bill James's Keltner-list questions would lead to more than a few boring answers, there are a few questions that suggest AJ might have a case for the Hall, someday:
- Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Right now, AJ doesn't really have a career that's similar to many Hall of Famers. If he were to retire today, he'd grade out as similar (score 863) to just one Hall of Famer -- Ernie Lombardi, who was voted in by the Veteran's Committee anyway. His best career comp as of today is former Gopher and Twin Terry Steinbach, which seems about right.
However, AJ isn't retired -- he just signed a contract to play for the Rangers in 2013. So comparing him to other 35-year olds would seem like a better strategy to see where he might be headed. And that comparison looks a lot better for AJ as two more Hall of Famers enter the list, including Carlton Fisk. Fisk made the Hall because he was a talented hitter and solid defensive catcher who played for a very long time. AJ? Well, you may not know this, but he's currently the #2 active leader in defensive games at catcher, and is 27th all-time in defensive games at catcher. If AJ plays just half the Rangers' defensive games at catcher in 2013, he'll jump all the way into the top 20 all-time, passing Jorge Posada, Mike Piazza, and Rick Dempsey. (Dempsey, by the way, played 24 seasons, while AJ will have played just 16 by the time he passes Dempsey.) If AJ plays five more seasons, averaging 100 defensive games at catcher each season (and he's averaged over 110 per season since 2001, including 121 last year), he'll pass Hall of Famer Gary Carter to become the #4 all-time leader in defensive games at catcher, behind Fisk, Bob Boone, and Ivan Rodriguez. Pretty august company and a much stronger Hall of Fame case than he's got right now.
- Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
AJ's first full season in the major leagues was in 2001, when the Twins roared into the AL Central lead but collapsed immediately following the All-Star break. He had even better years in 2002 and 2003 when the Twins went to the post-season for the first time since 1991 and then went twice in a row for the first time since the 1970s. Lost in most accounts of AJ's disappointing 2005 season with the Giants was that SF led the NL West until July 4 and finished 20 games over .500, then fell to 12 games under .500 after he left. And of course nobody forgets 2006, when AJ helped the White Sox to their first World Series title in nearly a century.
The Rangers are a pretty talented team, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they're still in the hunt for a World Series appearance next year, with AJ's help.
- Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
'Sportsmanship' is admittedly not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about AJ, and the meaning of 'character' brought to mind when AJ is mentioned is less 'good character' than 'quite a character'. Still, given that AJ played during the height of the steroid era, unless something comes to light about the 27 homers he hit in 2012 (a good 50% more than his previous career high), he'll likely get bonus points for the new definition of 'character' which is basically synonymous with 'PED-free'. AJ's Hall of Fame case will thus also be an interesting study in how long the steroid backlash remains with us and how it continues to change our view of players from that first decade of the 21st century.
Would the Twins have been better if they'd kept AJ? Hard to say, especially given that the front office seemed bound and determined to get rid of players from AJ's era -- by 2006, pretty much everybody who'd played on the 2002 team that won the club's only post-season series of the 21st century was gone. (Brad Radke, Michael Cuddyer, Juan Rincon, and Johan Santana were the only ones left on the roster, and none of the last three was a regular in 2002.) But without a doubt, AJ's had a much better career than most would have given him credit for back in 2004.