Saturday, January 16, 2021

Topps Cards That Should Have Been: The Pat Neshek Chronicles

 Pat Neshek collects, so this one's important.

That's something in itself. While being one of the few MLB players to actively collect baseball cards, Pat Neshek became one of the most people TO collect on baseball cards. Just look at the Lowell Palmer homage card in 2019 Heritage. Look at the number of fun cards Topps gave him from 2017 to 2019. Look at all the stars who apparently signed autos for Pat during ASG games. Neshek was the real deal, and it was a joy to have him in Philly for his last 3 seasons.

Topps generally was good at producing cards of Neshek, honestly, but they missed on two occasions. One was in 2012, coming off an okay year in San Diego. The A's signed him to a two-year deal, but a pretty low-key one. As Topps wasn't exactly rushing to make A's cards in 2012, Neshek's 24 games and 1.37 ERA went unaccounted for in update, which is a shame. This was the season where Neshek flirted with a soul patch before eventually going for the full beard in subsequent seasons.

From 2013 to 2017, he was in good shape. Topps missed his Phillies signing in 2017 Topps, righted it in Update, but...



By that point, Neshek was already in Colorado. Yes, Pat Neshek was one of the many traded players absolutely screwed over by Topps' early print date for Update. Hooray.

Neshek's time in Colorado after his strong, ASG-caliber start to the season with Philly was also pretty good. Yeah, slightly raised ERA because Denver, but a 2.45 ERA and 24 Ks in 28 games isn't bad at all. And it was a strong finish that'd lead Philly to re-sign him for 2 more years, with...eventual diminishing returns in 2019. 

Still, Neshek was a fun reliever to collect, and I'm thankful that Topps, for the most part, had his cards sorted out. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Topps Cards That Should Have Been: The Hideki Matsui Chronicles



If I were collecting in 2003, I'd be miffed.

Hideki Matsui, one of the most fearsome sluggers in Japanese league history, signs with my team, the New York Yankees, and Topps doesn't sign him to a deal. Upper Deck, Donruss and Fleer all do. But Topps, the most important card retailer in the business, can't court Matsui to a deal. So in 2003, while Upper Deck, Donruss and Fleer are producing tons of rookie cards of the slugger, Topps is just...shrugging. Going 'how about Jose Contreras?' 

It always pisses me off when Topps can't sign someone to a card-producing deal, because I'm a Topps-reliant collector, and I like seeing everybody in a Topps set and using that as my base for that player's year. And if they're not gonna do cards of, oh I dunno, THE MOST IMPORTANT JAPANESE EXPORT OF 2003, then what's the point?

So yes. Hideki Matsui makes it to New York in '03, and immediately hits the ground running, hitting .287 with 106 RBIs and 179 hits. He makes an all-star team, plays all 162 games, plays in a World Series, and loses Rookie of the Year to Angel Berroa for some strange reason.If Topps were to have put a Matsui rookie card in flagship, it would have looked like that- a shot of Matsui fielding specifically for card companies to have an action shot. That would have been enough for us. 

2004 is another strong year for the hitter affectionately referred to as Godzilla- he hits a career-high 31 homers, hits .298 with 108 RBIs, makes ANOTHER All-Star team, and finishes the season with a 5.0 WAR, higher than all Yankees that aren't A-Rod. Topps once again isn't making cards of Matsui this year, which is sucky, but UD, Donruss and Fleer all still do.

In 2005, Matsui FINALLY signs a contract with Topps, and from '05 until 2010, Matsui has tons of Topps cards, remains a solid MLB hitter and wins a World Series. 

Then, in 2011...the contract runs out. And Matsui and Topps don't agree on a new deal. Which means, for the last two years of Matsui's career...NO ONE is making cards of him. 

While Matsui's final two seasons aren't to the caliber of his Yankee years...we could have at least had SOMETHING. Anything. Like...2011, Matsui plays 141 games with the Oakland Athletics, in a starting role. He hits .251 with 72 RBIs and 130 hits. Not great, but he's still one of the chief figures of the A's season, and a Topps card of him would have made sense. Of course, no contract, no cards. So we suffer.

In 2012, Matsui doesn't sign with a team until one desperately needs him, and in late April he signs with the Rays. In 34 games, he hits .147 with only 7 RBIs. Clearly, his best days are behind him, and he retires after the season. And, again, Topps could have made a cool final tribute of Matsui, but it doesn't happen. 

In 2017, Topps signs a contract to produce cards of Matsui as a legend. He also signs with Panini, because nyah. Matsui has been on cards ever since. And yet Topps will probably never rewrite the years they missed with Matsui, because....I dunno, money or something. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Topps Cards That Should Have Been: Late-Career Matt Lawton

 

Matt Lawton is one of those forgotten heroes of late-90s, early-00s baseball. He was a solid contact-hitting outfielder overshadowed by Torii Hunter in Minnesota, had a few 2-3 WAR years there, then bopped around and had an ASG season in Cleveland in 2004. It was a decent trajectory that Lawton wasn't especially able to sustain past 2004.

Topps depicted Lawton as a Cleveland Indian for 2005 Topps, but Lawton had already signed a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lawton would share the outfield with Jason Bay and Tike Redman, and add some much-needed veteran presence to the struggling mid-2000s Bucs. And it...sort of worked. Lawton hit .273 in 101 games with the Pirates, being one of the strengths of the first half of the season, and being one of two players with over 10 stolen bases [the other being Jason Bay].

However, it makes him enough of a commodity for teams to want him at the trade deadline. The Chicago Cubs bite on the last day of the trade deadline, trading Jody Gerut for him. So, now Topps can't make a Pirates card of him in Update. 


Lawton joins the Cubs as they have a 53-52 record, and are looking at competing with the Astros and Cardinals for the division. Lawton does what he can in 19 games, hits .244 with 19 hits, and keeps his seasonal momentum going. But by the end of August, the Cubs are under .500, and are no longer a feasible playoff option. Therefore they no longer have a use for Lawton, and trade him to the still-competitive Yankees.

Which means Topps can't make a Cubs Lawton card either. They do end up doing a Yankee Lawton card, which is ironic because that's where he did the worst that year. 


As he's lowering out of his prime, Matt Lawton can only muster a minor league deal with the Mariners for 2006. He hits .259 in 11 games, with 7 hits, but with Ichiro, Ibanez and and Willie Bloomquist hammering down outfield spots, there really was no place for slumping Matt Lawton, sadly. He retires after the season, and Topps doesn't seem to notice. 

I don't think Matt Lawton is an important player in MLB history, but he is one of those 'you can't talk about 2000s Eastern conference baseball without him' kind of guys. He's a two time All star, a Twins hero, and he's definitely an important figure of the 2005 season. I just wish Topps thought so. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Topps Cards That Should Have Been: Corey Kluber's Early Years

 Right now, Corey Kluber is having tryouts for whoever wants to see that he can still pitch, to attempt to get a contract for 2021 and onward. It's a move that's sadly put him into the category of league-high pitching talents who've struggled to maintain success past their prior decade. I don't want to pit Kluber in the same category as people like Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Tim Lincecum, because I have a lot of respect for Kluber as a fireballer, and I want him to keep having great seasons and potentially get a nice HOF case. 

And yet...after 2020 ended after 1 inning, I worry that he may never reach his 2014 numbers again. Argh.

As starry as Kluber's career is, it's easy to forget that it took a few years for people to notice what was going on with his material, especially Topps. Kluber didn't get his first official Topps card until 2013. A year later, the legend began.

So, a year after being traded from the Padres to the Indians in a three way deal with the biggest name being Jake Westbrook, Corey Kluber debuts in Cleveland. He's used in relief, and pitches an 8.31 ERA in three appearances. So I can see why Topps didn't exactly bite in 2011 Update or 2012 Series 1.



In 2012, Kluber is moved to the rotation, but he doesn't get brought up until August, again affirming Cleveland's lack of space and confidence in Kluber. Also, because he's an August call-up, Topps again can't make a card of him until 2013. So it...sort of makes sense.

In 12 starts in 2012, he had a 2-5 record, a 5.14 ERA and 52 Ks. Not much to really scream about. But, it lets the Indians know that Kluber can be a starter, even in a depleted rotation scenario. So, 2013 they give him another shot in the rotation, he gets an 11-5 record, and the rest is history. 

I hope some team gets an opportunity to sign Kluber and let him get back to where he was, cause I still think he's got some stuff in the tank. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Topps Cards That Should Have Been: The Jeremy Jeffress Chronicles



Bold statement- Jeremy Jeffress is one of the best relief pitchers of the 2010s. His epic 2020 season in Chicago was the culmination of 9 strong years of solid service across the leagues. As great as he can be, Jeffress's strengths have often gone unappreciated, especially as far as Topps is concerned. For the majority of his career, because he's 'only' a middle reliever, Jeffress will either be included in the wrong uniform or not at all in Topps' sets. The good news is that in the last few seasons he's at least been getting cards in Topps' online exclusive Total sets, but...just like the 2002-05 run, they don't count as official Topps releases to me. So, we're gonna go through every year Topps dropped the ball with Jeffress. 

2011: Jeffress gets a rookie card with the Brewers for his late-season debut in 2010. In all actuality, Jeffress is already in Kansas City by the time the set is released, having been traded for Zack Greinke. In 14 games for KC, he has a 4.70 ERA and 13 Ks in relief. It's enough to get him a Topps card in 2012, but because his 2012 use is minimal, Topps...gives up for a few years.

2013, the Jays purchase his contract from the Royals. This is as part of the reformed, bulked-up 2013 Blue Jays, that end up not being as impressive as advertised. Jeffress, again limited to only 10 games due to roster space, has an 0.87 ERA with 12 games. He's a great asset, but he needs a team that can use him. 

Jeffress begins the 2014 season with the Jays, does Spring Training with them, pitches 3 games but sports a 10 ERA. Now the Jays have even less use for him, and release him. 

Of course, a team does pick him up, and it's thankfully the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that would be nothing but good to Jeffress over the years. In 29 games in 2014, Jeffress has a 1.88 ERA with 25 Ks. This is the season that ensures that Jeffress will be relieving games for the rest of the decade, as he's lights out here, and the Brewers will use him. 

2015 and 2016 Jeffress gets Brewers issues, that's the right idea. Then, at the 2016 trade deadline, he's involved in a deal to Arlington.

This is Topps just showing its biased towards people who aren't relievers again. Jonathan Lucroy, who he's traded with, gets an Update issue. Carlos Beltran, traded around the same time as he does, gets an Update issue. Jeffress, despite being just as crucial to the Rangers as Lucroy, does not. Boo. 

Jeffress gets 12 games in Arlington to finish the 2016 season, doesn't add to his 27 saves in Milwaukee, but strikes out 7 plus one more in the postseason. 

And yes, Jeffress does get a Rangers card in the 2017 Topps set. But...Jeffress is involved in another trade deadline deal. And because NONE of the 2017 trade deadline deals made it into 2017 Update...

I've gotta do this one as well.

The Brewers trading for Jeffress in 2017 is the opposite of his 2016- Jeffress was struggling in Texas and the Brewers wanted to bring him home so he'd excel for them. Sure enough, Jeffress sported a 3.65 ERA in 22 games, and returned to his former glory with the Brewers.

Topps not making a flagship card of Jeffress for their 2018 sets might be their most startling admission. 2018 is Jeffress's best season to date, with a career high WAR of 3.3, a full season career low ERA of 1.29, a career high 89 strikeouts, 15 saves, an All-Star appearance [which is also neglected for Update], and 11 postseason Ks despite a few runs. It's a fantastic performance from Jeffress, and one that gets him a Topps card in 2019, despite an inferior season that year.

Once I figure out how to customize the 2020 design, I'll deliver his 2020 Cubs tenure. Honestly, doing 2020 customs might be a completely different project in itself, as the story Topps told of the 2020 season was more a story of the 2019 season stretched out throughout all of 2020. So if this project is filling in Topps' blanks, I'll have a LOT to do for the 2020 set. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Topps Cards That Should Have Been: Ichiro in New York


It seemed like the most cruel of timings. 

In 2012, Ichiro Suzuki is traded to the New York Yankees, gets a Yankees card in Topps Update, and in the offseason signs a two year deal to remain in New York. Ichiro is no longer the perennial all-star, lineup staple that he was in the mid-2000s, but he's still a relevant name, and a name that people still love pulling in packs.

Then, tragedy strikes. Ichiro's deal with Topps expires, and he doesn't re-sign with them. Which means Ichiro's only baseball cards in 2013 and 2014 will be unlicensed, non-logo Panini cards. Meaning for two years, the only cards of one of my favorite players on MY TEAM were crappy PS jobs in Donruss, Pinnacle and Prizm sets.

And, of course, the following year, as he's joined the Marlins, Topps MIRACULOUSLY re-signs with him, meaning the only two years they couldn't make cards of him were his Yankees years. That...hurt.

So, one of the priorities of this project was to restore these lost years of Ichiro's career to Topps canon. Cause at the very least, I would have loved to see him. 

So, 2013: 150 games, being phased into more of a bench presence than a starter though still starts a ton of games. Hits .262 with 136 hits, 20 steals and 35 RBIs. He's beginning to separate from his prime years, but he's still helpful in numerous places. 

2014- As the outfield will be Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Carlos Beltran, Suzuki humbly accepts a more bench-heavy presence on the team. In 359 plate appearances he hits .284 with 102 hits and 22 RBIs. 

While these aren't prime years for Ichiro, they're still solid enough years for the Yankees, and they're enough to get the Marlins to bring him on for 3 years as a bench-outfield supporter. I just wished Topps would acknowledge them every now and then.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

NFL Wild Card Round: Subverting Expectations, And Also Not

 


Bills-Colts

My Prediction: The Bills will steamroll Indianapolis and it won't be close.

Reality: Not...as such. This was a really close game, and really entertaining to watch. Yes, there was the angle of 'THIS COULD BE PHILIP RIVERS' LAST GAME' and such, but even still Rivers was hanging in there, and making solid throws even well into the death throes of his team's efforts. But...it was impossible to stop the Bills from still outscoring them, as Diggs and Beasley still had great showings. The last quarter was tense as hell, but the final hail mary was a wash, and the Bills had a crucial playoff win at home, their first in 25 years. I couldn't be any more here for it, and I hope their good luck continues.


Seahawks-Rams:

My Prediction: It'll be hard fought, but there's no way the Rams will beat the Seahawks at home with a no-name starting at QB.

Reality: I was...kinda right? The Rams didn't win with Wohlford at QB, they won with Jared Goff there. Even if Goff isn't quite what he was supposed to be when they drafted them [why do I sense another QB trade with Philly coming on?], Goff still led the Rams to a win despite his lack of throwing prowess. Simply because Russell Wilson couldn't get stuff done, and because Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey kept blocking him at every turn. Therefore, the Rams, who could get past the Seattle defense in its depleted state, came away with the victory. Of course. 

It's looking like the Rams will have to go to Green Bay next week, as they're currently the lowest seeded team still in the race, so I wish McVay and the gang the best of luck. They've won at Lambeau before, but not with a scattered team like this. 


Bucs-Washington

Prediction: Yes, the Buccaneers are going to win, but it'd be nice if Washington put up a biiiit of fight.

Reality: That's kinda what happened. The Washington Nonames were forced to start Taylor Heinicke at QB, as Alex Young was hurt, as he tends to be. So...Taylor Heinicke against the greatest QB of our times...what do YOU think happened? Honestly...Heinicke had some prime time moments, scored some TDs, showed some promise for whatever squad signs him as a backup in 2021, but...this game belonged to Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, and the entire crew of veterans in Tampa. It wasn't gonna be close, and props to Washington for making it close, but...this was inevitable. 


Ravens-Titans

Prediction: Derrick Henry game v2. Titans are the better team, Ravens had more struggles during the season, Titans will win out.

Reality: The Lamar Jackson that should have showed up in last year's Titans-Ravens game showed up today, with some amazing running plays and touchdowns, plus some great work from the defense keeping Henry at bay. The Ravens looked more confident than they've looked in the playoffs in years, and deserved that win. 


Bears-Saints

Prediction: Saints won't even make it close.

Reality: I mean, that first half was kinda close. It was a game of defenses and stalemates, and it was a really dull game to broadcast on Nickelodeon. But, the Saints came alive in the second half and put Trubisky and the Bears away, as predicted. They'll play the Bucs next week, and that'll be interesting- Brady v. Brees for a crack at Rodgers [or...Goff?]



Browns-Steelers

Prediction: Okay the Steelers will probably win but man it'd be nice if the Browns found a way to get ahead somehow.

Reality: WHOA. THIS IS MORE LIKE IT. It's not a complete drubbing because the Steelers still scored 37 points and it's not a good sign for how the Browns will handle the Chiefs next week, but MAN THAT WAS SATISFYING. The Browns got their first playoff win in years, Landry and Chubb had big games, Baker Mayfield proved he can deliver in the playoffs, and a team that was undefeated til mid-November was sent home early. This is why I started watching football again, to see fun stuff like this again. It may not last long, but it's good to see the Browns victorious in the postseason for the first time in my lifetime. 

Next week, the plot thickens, and hopefully a good final picture forms.