On the road to Cooperstown

A few years ago, the Hall of Fame filled up all of the old wall space in its monument room. It extended the room and began placing plaques on what became its new back wall.

Let's hope there's enough available room there for the flood of great players who are nearing the end of their careers.

Hall of Famers sometimes arrive in large groups. That was the case in 1999, when George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount were elected in their first year on the ballot. It will happen again in 2007, when Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire and Cal Ripken all become eligible at the same time.

But the really thick wave -- a tsunami of baseball talent -- is headed toward Cooperstown, with the estimated time of arrival 2012 or 2013.

You can debate any time you discuss the credentials of active players. But using what is meant to be a moderate assessment, there will be at least 12 probable Hall of Famers who start the 2004 season between the ages of 35 and 41.

Among those, only Sammy Sosa seems better than a 50/50 bet to play at least four more seasons. That means we could have as many as five or six Hall of Famers retiring in the same season, most likely after 2005 or '06. Here's how the exodus of perennial All-Stars could shake out:

One and done
Future Hall of Famers likely to exit after 2004 (Opening Day age in parenthesis):

Roger Clemens (41): Yes, we've heard he's been through before. Playing for his hometown team could prompt Clemens to pitch into his mid-40s, as Ryan did. But baseball has become strictly a year-to-year proposition.

Also in the mix: After hitting only 13 homers in 2003, the still unemployed Fred McGriff sits at 491 career home runs; while 500 is considered the magic number, no eligible player with more than 442 home runs (Dave Kingman) has ever not made it into the Hall. Rickey Henderson, a certain first-ballot pick whenever he quits, hopes to play somewhere but might have run out of last chances.

Good for two
Future Hall of Famers likely to exit after 2005:

Randy Johnson (40): The Big Unit was almost 30 before he became more than a curiosity but dominated for a decade, going 175-58 in 1993-2002. He's piled up strikeout records and turned in a performance for the ages in the 2001 World Series, throwing a shutout in Game 2, winning a Game 6 start and then Game 7 in relief. He's got two years left on his deal with the Diamondbacks and has begun to break down.

Tom Glavine (38): He's 49 wins short of 300 and seems determined to get there. But with five 20-win seasons, 32 postseason starts and a 2.16 ERA over almost 60 innings in the World Series, he doesn't need the exclamation point. The opponents' batting average against him jumped to .288 in 2003, the first season on a three-year deal in New York. That was among the troubling signs of wear, which make it appear this could be his last contract.

Greg Maddux (37): Agent Scott Boras insists Maddux wants to pitch another four or five years, and it's possible he can. But this makes two winters in a row that teams have been leery of giving him a long-term contract. He is sitting on an offer from the Cubs that is believed to be for two years plus an option, giving him security only through 2005. He's 11 wins away from 300 and could lose interest in pitching after surpassing that milestone. Would he and Glavine really want to move from team to team to extend their great careers?

John Smoltz (36): Health is a major question for the last remaining member of the Atlanta troika. He had an unbelievable season in 2003, but pitched in agony during the playoffs before undergoing his fourth elbow surgery. He needs to avoid the disabled list in 2004 to assure himself of staying in Atlanta in '05, which is an option year in his contract. There will be debate about whether he's a Hall of Famer, but it will be hard to overlook a 13-4 record in the postseason and a 92-percent success rate since becoming a closer.

Roberto Alomar (36): After back-to-back poor seasons, he spent the winter working with a personal trainer in hopes of finding a closing kick to the wire. It's hard to say how much he has left in him, but there's little doubt that for about 13 years he played second base as well as anybody in history. He's been in the playoffs seven times with three different teams. Arizona signed him for only one year, so there's some urgency to his career.

Craig Biggio (38): Among active players, only Henderson, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro have scored more runs than Biggio's 1,503. Palmeiro and Bonds are the only players with more than Biggio's 517 doubles. His game has gone steadily downhill, but the chance to play behind the Clemens-led pitching staff should help him through this season. It could be his last year, but it will cost the Astros only $2 million to exercise their '05 option.

Three and goodbye
Future Hall of Famers likely to exit after 2006:

Barry Bonds (39): Barring injury, he's going to reach 700 homers in 2005 (if not late '04) and break Henry Aaron's record of 755 homers in '06. That's the last season in his current contract with San Francisco. He could extend his career with a move to the American League but has said for years that he's not going to try to play forever, so let's take him at his word. The only thing that seems likely to make this generation's greatest hitter keep playing is if he wants to extend the home run record beyond 800, making it tougher for Sosa to reach it.

Rafael Palmeiro (39): His new deal with Baltimore is for only one year and an option, but this guy is motivated to play forever. He's led his league in a major offensive category only three times in his career (hits in 1990, doubles in '91 and runs in '93). Like Jeff Bagwell and Biggio, his career lacks the World Series stamp. But he already has 528 homers and will reach 3,000 hits in 2005, if he stays healthy. Forget the debate.

Frank Thomas (35): His complicated contract allows him to lock in two more seasons with the White Sox, if he wants, but he could find a home elsewhere if the Sox exercise a $3.5 million buyout for 2006. He's never not been a productive hitter when he's healthy as witnessed by a .996 career OPS, the 10th best in history. He's never been to the Series, but was denied a chance in 1994, his greatest season. If he gets the 82 home runs he needs to reach 500, he should be a Hall of Famer.

Jeff Bagwell (35): His rich extension with the Astros runs through 2006 with an $18 million option for '07. It is easy to see how owner Drayton McLane might say thanks for the memories and settle for a $7 million buyout, which is deferred. Bagwell is currently at 419 home runs and 1,421 RBI. He could reach 500 and 1,700 in '06, if he stays as healthy as he has generally been. He's missed only 24 games over the last eight seasons.

Also in the mix: Pedro Martinez is only 32, but who knows how much longer the three-time Cy Young winner will be able to pitch? Juan Gonzalez, like Thomas a two-time MVP with borderline Hall numbers, could resurrect his career in Kansas City, adding enough shelf life to reach the Hall.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.