I have said for years that my first favorite baseball player that did not play for the New York Mets was Oakland Athletics outfielder Jose Canseco. Imagine a complete ballplayer at that time that could hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season and what comes out of it is the 1980's version of the best player in the game. It was before the days of advanced sabermetric stats and it resulted the best players in the game being judged by the eye test. As the 1990's came, I found myself interested in the younger players both coming up from the minor league system and being acquired in trades by the Cleveland Indians. Of course, under General Manager John Hart, the Indians would trade for young players such as Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Mark Whiten, Reggie Jefferson, Kenny Lofton, and eventually Omar Vizquel, adding them to a group of young hitters such as Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Mark Lewis.
Of course, Vizquel would not make it to the Indians until the 1994 season. Prior to that, the Indians used a very defensive minded shortstop by the name of Felix Fermin, who himself had just come over in a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the start of the 1989 season. In 903 career games, Fermin hit just four home runs, only one of them coming in his first six big league seasons. I spent a good part of my youth confusing Fermin with the likes of similar shortstops like Rafael Belliard and Jay Bell. Looking at their career paths, Fermin's and Belliard's were very similar with Bell becoming the more accomplished offensive player. All three would make appearances in the postseason, and of course; it was Bell who had the most consistent role with the Pirates from 1990-1992.
One of the things I always insisted on was that Bell had to be traded for Fermin. Both players switched teams between 1988 and 1989 and Bell became the Pirates starting shortstop the same year Fermin starting playing every day for the Indians. It was a little more confusing than a simply swap though. Prior to the start of the 1989 season, the Indians acquired Fermin from the Pirates to complete a November 1988 trade which sent infielder Denny Gonzalez to the Indians. The same day it was announced that it would be Bell who would be traded to the Pirates to complete the deal. The deal was centered around Gonzalez going to the Indians with a player to be named later going to each club. It looked like a bust from the Indians perspective because Gonzalez turned out to be a non factor for Cleveland. The Indians could justify the deal by wanting to focus on a more defensive minded shortstop on a team that had the potential to score a lot of runs already, but they saw more use in Gonzalez. Bell was more of a complementary player who could help an offense that was pretty top heavy- be it with top National League All Stars Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke.
Belliard came over to the Atlanta Braves as a free agent after the 1990 season. He had spent the previous nine seasons with the Pirates, just twice playing in 117 games or more and hitting a collective .218 during that time. During Belliard's eight seasons in Atlanta, he would benefit from the opportunity to play in 48 postseason games, batting 75 times. 21 of those games and 32 of those at bats would come in the four World Series he played in, one of which, the Braves won (1995). However, in Belliard's career, which consisted of 1155 games and 2301 at bats over 17 seasons, he hit just .221 with two home runs and an on base plus slugging (OPS) of only .530.
Bell would finish off with the best MLB career of the three, as what could have been expected. After starting out his Pirates career with 39 and 30 sacrifice bunts in 1990 and 1991, respectively, he would embark on seven straight seasons of hitting 13 or more home runs, consistently driving in over 50 runs and had 30 doubles in a season six times. His best offensive season would come in 1999 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he hit .289 with 38 home runs, 112 runs batted in, 132 runs scored and a .931 OPS.
Fermin did a respectable job holding the fort at shortstop until the Indians acquired Vizquel before the 1994 season. Similar to Belliard, Fermin hit for no power, but managed to hit for a more tolerable batting average. During his time in Cleveland, Fermin hit .256, right on par with his career average of .259 (ten seasons).
As for Vizquel, there is little to argue for a player who hit .272 in 2968 games and 2877 hits over 24 seasons in addition to his great defense he treated us with; Vizquel was clearly a pleasure to watch over the course of a near quarter century. The major draw back for a Hall of Fame enshrinement is the fact that he played for five years too long. Perhaps it is over these five seasons where he was able to get much closer to 3000 hits, which seems to be a HOF lock. I am not a big fan of the compilers, especially if it because of that the player reaches magical numbers. In all honesty, Vizquel's presence as a defensive player rivals only Ozzie Smith. But after his 2007 contract ended with the San Francisco Giants, he would have been smarter to call it quits. During his next five seasons, Vizquel never came close to his career .688 OPS and managed just 279 hits while playing for four different teams. If he had retired after 2007, he would have been regarded as the American League's version of Ozzie and may already be in the Hall of Fame. While his numbers look better than they would if he had played five less seasons, it is bothersome that he hung around well passed his prime. Imagine if Derek Jeter played another five seasons and added another 279 hits (which would leave him with 3744 career hits, leaving fourth all time instead of sixth), doing it as a backup player just to boast his stats. To me, a Vizquel with 2598 hits over 19 seasons playing an elite defense is more of a Hall of Fame candidate than a 24 season, 2877 hit version who had to hang around as a bench player for his last five seasons.
I look at the early careers of Belliard and Fermin and see a lot of Vizquel in them. Omar was clearly the superior offensive player, hitting as high as .333 in a season and had as many as 112 runs scored and 191 hits in a season, whereas only Bell had more runs scored in a season among the shortstops discussed. Vizquel was also the superior defensive player and perhaps second only to Smith among defensive shortstops of all time. The value of Smith's defense, however, is much superior to Vizquel's and solely the reason Ozzie is in the Hall. Just because Vizquel hit for a higher batting average and had a slightly better OPS does not make Omar a sure thing. If Vizquel played 19 seasons as opposed to 24, he would still have more hits, runs scored and a higher batting average and OPS than Smith. He had nothing to prove by playing the additional five seasons.