As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be publishing a series of articles and Sporcle quizzes over the next few weeks where I’ll look at the top players (by Wins Above Replacement) in each team’s history who do not have a retired number. If you want to try the quiz before reading the full piece, that can be found here. Once you’ve tried that, be sure to come back and read the full piece below, with a team-by-team analysis.
(Please note that to make the list, players must have worn a number with the team for at least three seasons. Also of note: the quiz contains one bonus Baltimore Oriole answer, to account for a St. Louis Brown appearing in their top six players.)
#35 Mike Mussina (1991-2000, 47.8 WAR)
#7 Mark Belanger (1965-1981, 40.8 WAR)
#6 Paul Blair (1964-1976, 39.7 WAR)
#7 Harlond Clift (1934-1943, 39.6 WAR)
#3 Bobby Grich (1970-1976, 36.0 WAR)
#26 Boog Powell (1961-1974, 35.4 WAR)
A lot of the Orioles’ choices are players from their run of dominance in the 1960s and ‘70s, which describes most of their existing retired numbers (currently, only Cal Ripken Jr. represents the 1980s or on, although Eddie Murray’s start in the late ‘70s puts him at the extreme tail end of that set). I think you could retire any of Belanger, Blair, Grich, or Powell’s numbers and be okay, but they’re all of similar importance, so it’s hard to separate them out. Belanger probably as the edge, thanks to his slight leads in WAR and years with the team, but not being Hall of Famers hurts every member of this group.
I’d say put one of them on the ‘80s or ‘90s teams and you’d see another retired number, but that hasn’t seemed to help Mussina, even with his recent Hall election. Maybe they need more time to come around to retiring his number? I wouldn’t be shocked if it happens eventually. From the rest of the set, Grich has a decent case for the Veterans Committee, but spending under a decade with the team probably doesn’t help.
I don’t expect the team to budge on Harlond Clift, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate from the St. Louis Browns days, but if the Orioles really wanted to honor those players, someone more famous like George Sisler would probably come first, although most of the more famous ones played before uniform numbers were a thing (or only barely wore one). But the most likely choice is they don’t care to give attention to those days, which is fair for a number of reasons. Runner-up choice Brady Anderson (#9, 1988-2001) might actually have a good chance, given that he’s remained working with the team in the front office and isn’t part of the ‘60s-‘70s teams, where he would have likely been overshadowed somewhat.
Boston Red Sox
#21 Roger Clemens (1984-1996, 80.8 WAR)
#24 Dwight Evans (1972-1990, 66.5 WAR)
#15 Dustin Pedroia (2006-present, 51.6 WAR)
#10 Lefty Grove (1934-1941, 41.9 WAR)
#50 Mookie Betts (2014-2019, 41.8 WAR)
#5 Nomar Garciaparra (1996-2004, 41.2 WAR)
For a long time, the Red Sox required that players make the Hall of Fame, spend ten years with the team, and retire as a member of the team. That was one of the higher bars any team had, and one of the few that was specifically spelled out. Slowly, though, they've become more and more willing to bend those rules to honor newer players. Still, even if they're a little looser on their rules than they used to be, it's probably best to keep that standard in mind.
Clemens fails on the "Hall of Fame" standard and is waiting for the Hall voters to change their minds on steroid players. He might be waiting a while still (although tension with the team is probably part of the issue; it's not hard to imagine a version of Clemens that's tight with the team owner getting an exception carved out for him).
Dwight Evans might have a better case, especially if he continues to build on his successful Veterans Committee debut from last winter. He'd be a solid choice, and I imagine the team wouldn't mind retiring his number if that happens (although it's also worth noting that retiring his #24 could complicate a future Manny Ramirez ceremony... actually, maybe the team would prefer that). Also on the Hall standard, Lefty Grove is super still extremely notable, and could be worth bending the ten year rule for, if not for the fact that his other nine seasons were all spent with the same team; he's probably remembered much more for his days on the A's (more on that to come, though).
Then, we have the more recent trio of Betts, Pedroia, and Garciaparra. I could see any of them getting a retired number, although it would probably depend largely on something more nebulous, like fan response. Pedroia's the most associated with the team, but injuries have scuttled his Hall chances. Garciaparra has a similar case, but with the added problem of being traded away from Boston. Betts would likely have dodged those issues, had the team not gotten cheap and traded him away. That probably makes him less likely to get a number than the others, although maybe they'll change their mind if he's one day elected to Cooperstown.
New York Yankees
#15 Red Ruffing (1930-1946, 56.8 WAR)
#30 Willie Randolph (1976-1988, 54.0 WAR)
#13 Alex Rodriguez (2004-2016, 54.0 WAR)
#6 Roy White (1965-1979, 46.8 WAR)
#6 Tony Lazzeri (1926-1937, 45.9 WAR)
#9 Graig Nettles (1973-1983, 44.4 WAR)
#24 Robinson Cano (2005-2013, 44.4 WAR)
With 23 retired numbers (counting the ones retired twice, including Jackie Robinson's league-wide retirement), people like to say that the Yankees have too many retired numbers already. But in all honesty... they could probably retire a few more if they wanted to, without adding a bad choice.
Take Red Ruffing, for instance. Most teams wouldn't think twice about retiring the number of a Hall of Famer who won over 270 games (231 of which came in the Bronx), and headed six World Series-winning pitching staffs (Ruffing started Game 1 in six of the seven World Series he pitched in as a member of the Yankees). But with New York, he just kind of slipped through the cracks. His primary number (#15) already being retired for another player (Thurman Munson) might be insurmountable for another team, but the Yankees have shown in the past that they don't mind retiring a number for two different players. The biggest issue is mostly inertia; if they haven't retired his number already, there's not really a big reason to change course, given that he's been retired for over seven decades and dead for over three decades at this point.
That's the biggest problem for a lot of these players. Roy White has been retired since 1979, and probably won't be making the Hall of Fame soon. Tony Lazzeri is already in the Hall, but was overshadowed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during his career. Willie Randolph was underrated during his career and would make a solid Veterans Committee choice, but is probably in line behind players like Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich at second base.
The best of this bunch is probably Graig Nettles, who would make a similarly strong VC choice while actually probably being the top candidate at third base for the foreseeable future (I doubt Scott Rolen or Adrian Beltre make it past the BBWAA ballot, at this point). If that happens, he'd definitely go in with a Yankees' cap on his plaque; while only half of his twenty-two seasons came in New York, the other eleven were split between five different teams.
And then there are the more modern cases. Alex Rodriguez obviously has a lot of moving parts to his case; given how much his image has healed over time, I wouldn't be surprised if it happens one day. If it gets good enough that he's inducted into the Hall, I'd be even less shocked if the number follows. Of course, maybe buying another team would complicate his relation with the team further, although now that the Mets have sold, that's likely the biggest potential pitfall out of the way (since the only other team that would have been more awkward for a former Yankees' star to own probably isn't going on the market anytime soon). Meanwhile, Cano feels similar to A-Rod in many ways, but slightly more far-fetched for a number of reasons. I'll revisit his chances if #13 goes on the wall.
(edit: I wrote this up before Cano got suspended for the 2021 season for his second failed PED test. So yeah, really doubting this one happens at this point.)
Tampa Bay Rays
#3 Evan Longoria (2008-2017, 51.8 WAR)
#13 Carl Crawford (2002-2010, 35.6 WAR)
#18 Ben Zobrist (2006-2014, 35.3 WAR)
#39 Kevin Kiermaier (2013-present, 27.3 WAR)
#14 David Price (2008-2014, 21.2 WAR)
#33 James Shields (2006-2012, 20.0 WAR)
This feels extremely short after the Red Sox and Yankees, but there's just not as much history here. Like the path taken by their fellow '90s expansion team the Rockies, it feels like there's a very obvious way forward for the Rays, and they aren't being especially shy about telegraphing it. As I noted earlier this year, the Rays are the only team that didn't feature a #3 on their 2020 roster (either as a current player, or as an already-retired number). Much like Colorado and Todd Helton, they appear to be waiting to retire their first homegrown star's number, and anything else will come later. Beyond that is a lot less clear, though, as Crawford, Zobrist, and Price aren't exactly Larry Walker; maybe Price holds on to make the Hall of Fame and Tampa decides to honor him as well, but that's the only particularly likely possibility I see among the players no longer on the team. Outside of that bunch, Kevin Kiermaier maybe sticking around a while and/or leading the team to their first World Series would probably get him major brownie points if he stays healthy enough to build up that WAR total. I don't know that it's super likely, but also wouldn't be the craziest outcome, either.
Toronto Blue Jays
#37 Dave Stieb (1979-1992 + 1998, 56.8 WAR)
#19 Jose Bautista (2008-2017, 38.2 WAR)
#1 Tony Fernandez (1983-1990 + 1993 + 1998-1999 + 2001, 37.5 WAR)
#25 Carlos Delgado (1993-2004, 36.8 WAR)
#22 Jimmy Key (1984-1992, 29.6 WAR)
#29 Jesse Barfield (1981-1989, 29.5 WAR)
The Blue Jays are about two decades older than the Rays, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not all that much longer. Back when I wrote my Retired Numbers Series piece on Toronto, I noted that they had long used a “Level of Excellence” that seemed to replace retired numbers, but they had recently changed that by retiring Roberto Alomar’s following his induction to the Hall of Fame.
Since then, there haven’t been any additions to the Level of Excellence, but the late Roy Halladay (already on said Level) did have his #32 retired following his death (but prior to his election to Cooperstown). So we are still largely left with the remaining members of that group as the top choices, plus Jose Bautista. It’s a shame that the team seems committed to retiring numbers only Hall of Famers, because the top four (Dave Stieb in particular) would all be fine choices, by my estimation.