Let the debate begin — again.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame ballot for 2021 is in the hands of the electorate. With only 25 names, it’s the smallest since 2009, when only 23 players made the exclusive list. The short list should only heighten the annual debate that takes place this time every year.

Without a slam-dunk first-year nominee for the first time in eight years, this year’s ballot highlights even more the two most recognizable names — Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. This will be their ninth, and next to last, year on the active ballot for voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Bonds and Clemens have both gained in recent years but have settled into the 60 percent acceptance range, considerably below the 75 percent needed for election. But this will be the first time since their first year of eligibility — 2013, when nobody was elected — that they have been on a ballot that didn’t have at least one solid first-year candidate.

A year ago, when 298 were needed for election, Clemens got 242 votes and Bonds 241 of the 397 that were cast. With 412 ballots in the hands of eligible voters, the number of votes needed for election this year will be in the 300 range. Those numbers are down considerably from 2011, when a record number of 581 votes were cast and the number of eligible voters was reduced, partly through attrition as the newspaper industry declined and honorary members no longer involved in active coverage were phased out.

Without a first-year slam dunk candidate, Curt Schilling, who got 278 votes (70 percent) and finished third behind Derek Jeter and Larry Walker a year ago, figures to be the main beneficiary this time around. Along with Sammy Sosa, he is also in his ninth year of eligibility. In addition there are 10 others returning to the 2021 ballot.

While none of the 11 first-timers on this year’s ballot figure to have much of an impact, they are at least deserving of consideration as 10-plus year veterans who made significant contributions. At quick glance, outfielder Torii Hunter and pitcher Mark Buehrle would appear to head the group, which also includes A.J. Burnett, Michael Cuddyer, Dan Haren, LaTroy Hawkins, Tim Hudson, Aramis Ramirez, Nick Swisher, Shane Victorino and Barry Zito.

One way or another, Bonds and Clemens figure to dominate the discussion not only with the voters but also with the general fan base — so feel free to join the discussion, which will run right up to Dec. 31, by which time ballots must be postmarked. The there is only one guarantee — there will be no recount.

Meanwhile, here’s a recent sampling from the mailbag from my column about rules changes coming to MLB.

Richie Bancells:

Henny,

As I am sure you know I am too much of a traditionalist. I feel they are killing the game that I grew up to love and all the things my dad taught me about the game. To me the most offensive is a below-.500 team being allowed to make the playoffs. No way do I think this should happen. As you said, it cheapens things. I never understood in college football a .500-or-worse team making a bowl game. Makes no sense to me.

And, about that Snell thing, can you imagine Cakes’ reaction if Earl tried to take him out in that situation?

My take: If Earl ever took anybody out of game while pitching a shutout, I missed it!

Joe Clifford:

Hate the 16-team playoffs, but willing to make peace with best-of-three for the wild-card round if I must. Absolutely despise the idea of seven-inning doubleheaders, which are completely unnecessary in a full season when teams play, what … two doubleheaders, max? (And split doubleheaders at that!)

Not a fan of the automatic runner on second. It’s a gimmicky, tournament rule. We all knew the universal DH was going to happen eventually.

My take: You might have to get used to that gimmicky tournament rule.

Murray Cook:

I BELIEVE THAT WE SHALL NOT RECOGNIZE THE GAME AS WE HAVE KNOWN IT. AND ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHANGES WILL BE IN THE MINOR LEAGUES. SEVEN-INNING GAMES—-YUK

My take: That would surely prepare starting pitchers to go deep into the game!

Boog Powell:

I kinda like the extra inning rule, Jim. … After playing in a few 18-inning marathons, it seemed like it didn’t matter who won — let’s just get this over with. Only fans that are left are the ones that had a 12-pack … and turned into leather lungs.

My take: Yeah, and those 18-inning thrillers made for a messy box score too!

Warren Sollod:

My opinion — no seven-inning games, doubleheader or not; no man on second in extras, and yes on the DH.

My take: Nothing like getting right to the point.

Tot Woolston:

Jim … I have never been one who complained about the length of games or how slow it is. But I find myself losing focus when watch this year. I am beginning to wonder if baseball is becoming dangerously close to fast pitch softball. The 100 mph throwers and the foul balls on those pitches make it somewhat hard to stay focused. Double-digit strikeouts for both teams on a regular basis are beginning to dull my senses. I am not inherently opposed to analytics but maybe the pitching is just becoming too good for the game. Or maybe I am just an old fart.

What do you think?

My take: I remember fast pitch softball … whatever happened to it? We use OF as a term of endearment around here!

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum