Manny, Pudge and Vlad top first-time candidates on 2017 HOF ballot

Every Hall of Fame class these days brings new challenges, new controversies and new members to Cooperstown. Next year probably will be no different. In the class of 2017, we will debate one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, but one of the faces of the steroid era. On next year's ballot, there will be one of the best catchers ever, another catcher with five rings and an outfielder who was signed out of the Dominican Republic after coming to the tryout on a bike while wearing spikes that didn't match, with one of his spikes so big that he had to jam an extra sock into the toe to make it fit.

It will certainly be a heated debate. They all are nowadays.

The easiest argument -- for or against -- involves Manny Ramirez, who, statistically, isn't just one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, he also is one of the greatest hitters. He has a .312 career batting average and 555 home runs; Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx and Albert Pujols are the only players in history with 500 home runs and a career batting average that high. To go with that .312 average, Ramirez had a .411 on-base percentage and a .585 slugging average; only Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg can match all three of those numbers. Ramirez had a .996 OPS; in a career of 5,000 plate appearances, only Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg, Barry Bonds and Rogers Hornsby had a higher OPS.

Those are all reasons to vote for Ramirez.

The reason to vote against him -- the reason he will have no shot at getting near the required 75 percent -- is that he was twice suspended for performance-enhancing drug use, and each time it was while there was testing. Despite the slight spike for Bonds and Roger Clemens in the 2016 voting, there is still a significant number of voters who will not vote for anyone with a connection to PEDs. And no one has more connections to PEDs than Ramirez.

There are no suspensions, no positive tests, nothing in the Mitchell report, for catcher Pudge Rodriguez, yet suspicions remain about PED use, because he was named in Jose Canseco's book and because of an abrupt change in body type during his career. Such suspicions kept Mike Piazza out of the Hall for several years and continue to keep out Jeff Bagwell. Rodriguez, by any statistical measure, is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Rodriguez caught more games than anyone in major league history. He was one of the best defensive catchers ever and the best in defensive WAR. He won 13 Gold Gloves. Few catchers threw better than him, few were quicker behind the plate and few had hands as soft as his. His hands were so good, he used an exceptionally small catcher's mitt so he could scoop balls out of the dirt easier than with a big mitt. Rodriguez won the American League MVP in 1999. Nine players have won an MVP and at least 10 Gold Gloves: Rodriguez, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Keith Hernandez, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki. They're all in the Hall except Hernandez, Rodriguez and Ichiro, and Ichiro probably will enter in his first year of eligibility.

Rodriguez is surely among the best catchers of all time, joining, among others, Bench, Piazza, Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk. Rodriguez made 14 All-Star teams, won seven Silver Sluggers and had a 68.4 WAR -- third among catchers. The only case against Rodriguez, beyond PED suspicions, is a career .334 on-base percentage; only six Hall of Famers have a lower OBP during the live ball era.

Another catcher on the ballot, Jorge Posada, has no connections to PEDs, but his defensive WAR (1997-2011) is 68th. Posada is, however, seventh all time in home runs (275) and ninth all-time in OBP among players with at least 1,000 games caught and with catcher being their primary position. While Rodriguez's WAR was 68.4, Posada's was 42.7. But Posada won five World Series rings and five Silver Sluggers and made five All-Star teams. Advanced metrics often compare Posada with Ted Simmons and Bill Freehan among catchers. Neither is a Hall of Famer, but both deserve more credit than they receive.

Advanced metrics aren't overly kind to outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who came to that tryout in the Dominican on a bike but was so overwhelming athletically, he was signed after working out for less than 30 minutes. Advanced metrics rate him with Hall of Famer Billy Williams, but behind non-Hall of Famers Gary Sheffield and Dick Allen, and more comparable to Will Clark, Norm Cash, Reggie Smith, Jim Edmonds, Bobby Abreu and Larry Walker. Guerrero played in a hitter-heavy era, and despite great tools, especially a tremendous throwing arm, he didn't rate well defensively (no Gold Gloves), then moved to the American League and was a designated hitter for 508 games. He also didn't walk much. Of the 53 players with 400 homers, only five had fewer walks than Guerrero.

Still, Guerrero had some sensational numbers, including a .318 career batting average with 449 home runs. Only Williams, Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx and Stan Musial can match both of those statistics. Guerrero won an MVP and finished among the top five in three other seasons. He made nine All-Star teams and won eight Silver Sluggers. Guerrero had a .379 career on-base percentage and a .553 career slugging percentage; only 14 Hall of Famers in the live ball era can match both of those numbers.

Guerrero might have the best shot to get elected next year, unless voters look past the suspicions on Rodriguez. Ramirez won't get in next year; he might not be elected in his 10 years on the writer's ballot. Posada probably won't make it in his first year on the ballot.

Also next year, maybe Tim Raines will get a big push and make it in his final year on the ballot. Raines' numbers are prodigious; his hits, walks and steals totals are matched only by Rickey Henderson and Ty Cobb.

Next year's Hall of Fame ballot won't be an easy one to vote on. They never are these days.