Picking through a pack of cards

When I was in college, I collected contemporary Topps baseball cards.

I was obsessive about it, too. I bought box after box, and tracked the cards I still needed with a checklist of my own design. And even after I'd bought so many boxes that I was missing only 20 or 30 cards in the 792-card set, I continued to buy more packs of cards on the off-chance that I'd actually get one that I didn't already have (hey, I told you I was obsessive). The end result of all this craziness each year was one complete set -- well, nearly complete -- and many, many "extra" cards that weren't worth the flimsy cardboard on which they were printed (but I never lacked for bubble gum!).

I admit this sheepishly, but I can happily report that I've found other obsessions in the years since. When I buy baseball cards now, it's still Topps, but it's only a pack at a time, just for nostalgia's sake when I'm in the card shop with my stepson (who, alas, is obsessed with Magic cards rather than baseball cards).

And this weekend when I got home from the shop with one pack of 2003 Topps (Series 1), I had an idea: I'd write something about each card in the pack, no matter how uninteresting it might be.

So here are all 10 cards, in the order in which I found them ...

#229 -- Melvin Mora

Whereon we learn,

Though it has been Melvin's defensive versatility -- and status as father of quintuplets -- that has garnered him the most attention, he has enough bat juice to produce periodic streaks of surprising production. On June 28-29, 2002, he became the first Oriole to lead off consecutive games with a HR since Brady Anderson did it in both ends of a doubleheader in 1999.

Indeed, Mora hit 19 home runs last season, and that was 11 more than he'd ever hit in a professional season, minors or majors. He also drew 70 walks, which makes for a nice power/patience combination, especially considering he plays center field and shortstop. And while Mora's batting average is a concern -- just .233 in 2002 -- the total package was enough to make him just about as valuable as ...

#88 -- Jose Cruz Jr.

In the old days, when I opened a pack of cards, I hoped to discover one worth more than a nickel (not that I ever actually sold anything). These days, when I open a pack of cards I hope to find something to write about. So you can imagine how my heart leapt for joy when the second card in this pack was everybody's favorite new Giants right fielder.

Last week, reader Joshua Packard sent me the following ...

    Rob, I just read that the Giants signed Jose Cruz Jr. and I've got a couple of questions about him.

    Do you think he's a good player?

    Do you think there is some value in knowing what a player will do? (i.e. does the fact that Jose Cruz Jr. has been essentially the same player for the last several years give him some value (call it predictability) that isn't accounted for with OPS?)

I've got a couple of answers: yes, and yes.


Yeah, I think Cruz is a good player. No, he's not the superstar that everybody thought he would become way back when (i.e. 1997). But you know, his minor-league numbers never really suggested that he would become a great major leaguer. He was the third pick in the (1995) draft and he was a switch-hitter with a pretty swing, and for a lot of people that's plenty. But those monster numbers in the minors? They just weren't there. Which is why I never got all that excited about him.

And of course, he hasn't met those expectations. After the Giants signed Cruz, I got a few e-mail messages the basic gist of which was, "Why should we be excited about this guy?"

You should be excited because there weren't a lot of corner outfielders available, and the Giants probably got the best one that was left. What the Giants needed to do was replace the production they got from Reggie Sanders last season. In 140 games, Sanders hit 23 homers, scored 75 runs, knocked in 85, and batted .250/.324/.455 (BA/OBP/Slugging).

Ron Shandler's projection for Cruz includes a .338 OBP and a .485 slugging percentage, but that was before Cruz signed with the Giants, who play in the best pitcher's park in the National League. So his numbers won't be quite that good, but he should give the Giants essentially what Sanders gave them.

As for whether or not there's value in consistency, I think that there is ... but only if the organization is sophisticated enough to notice.

What do I mean by that? A sophisticated organization estimates how many games they want to win in the coming season, and then they figure out how many runs they need to score, and how many they can allow. Armed with those figures, you can start building your roster with at least a modicum of precision. And it stands to reason that the more you know about how an individual player will perform, the more precise you can be.

All that said, I don't know that Cruz is particularly consistent. Granted, his OPS's were essentially the same from 1998 through 2000, and his 2002 OPS was similar. But his playing time has been up and down over the years, due to both injuries and ineffectiveness. And his OPS in 2001 was out of context with the rest of his career. Still, it's probably true that with Cruz, you do know what you're going to get. And what the Giants got was a good player who should make them the favorites in the National League West this season.

#242 -- Robert Person

From the back of the card:

On June 2, 2002, Robert not only threw five shutout innings at the Expos, but supported his effort with a grand slam and a three-run homer. A .116 career hitter at the time, his 7 RBI were team pitcher's record.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the less said about Person's pitching, the better.

#227 -- Junior Spivey

From marginal prospect to National League All-Star in an eyeblink, Junior -- Ernest Lee by birth -- was a 36th-round pick in Arizona's first draft.

It's true that he was a 36th-round draft pick, and it's also true that he's probably one of the better 36th-round draft picks you'll ever meet. But I'm not sure I buy the notion that he was a "marginal prospect" just an "eyeblink" before becoming an All-Star. In Spivey's first season as a professional, he batted .335 and drew 35 walks in 51 games. In his third pro season (1998), he batted .290, drew 92 walks, and stole 42 bases in 113 games.

After that season, John Sickels wrote that Spivey "... is now regarded as a prospect, albeit a marginal one."

Oops. I guess that he was marginal, at least in 1998.

And do you know what's odd? 1998 was the best minor-league season Spivey had. He spent most of 1999 and 2000 on the disabled list with various injuries, and then he didn't play all that well in 2001 (most of which he spent with the D-Backs). So when you consider Spivey's history, you have to give the Diamondbacks a lot of credit for realizing there was a good player waiting to come out ... though I doubt if even they fantasized that he'd become an All-Star in his first season as a regular.

#OG6 -- Lance Berkman ("Own the Game" subset)

The back of the card lists the top 10 RBI men in the major leagues last year, and Berkman is fourth on the list -- and first in the National League -- with 128. What I found particularly interesting, though, are the next two NLers on the list, Albert Pujols (123) and Pat Burrell (116).

Pujols, because if there was ever a guy who didn't suffer the sophomore jinx, it's him. It's exceptionally rare for a Rookie of the Year to play just as well the next season, but that's exactly what Pujols did.

Burrell, because he's turned into a star and nobody really seems to have noticed. Maybe that's just life with the Phillies, though; Bobby Abreu certainly isn't as famous as he should be. I think all that's going to change in 2003, though. When the Phillies score 900 runs and dethrone the Braves, people will have to notice. Won't they?

#334 -- Athletics win 20 consecutive games!

If one flipped a coin 20 times, the odds of it coming up heads on each flip are 1-in-1,048,576. Thus, Oakland's 20-game winning streak from August 13 to September 4, 2002, was truly one in a million. The A's won games 18 and 19 on Miguel Tejada (homer and single) in the bottom of the ninth. Then, after blowing an 11-0 lead, Oakland won its 20th straight on a Scott Hatteberg homer -- again in the bottom of the ninth. The Athletics' final triumph broke the AL record for consecutive victories.

But it wasn't quite one in a million, was it? Because the A's were an excellent team last year -- remember, they won 103 games -- and their competition during that 20-game winning streak was something less than excellent. The A's beat the Royals (62-100) five times, the Tigers (55-106) three times, and the Indians (74-88) four times. They also beat the Blue Jays (78-84) twice, the White Sox (81-81) three times, and the Twins (94-67) three times. So that's 20 games and 20 wins, with only three against a team that finished 2002 with a winning record.

I don't want to figure the actual odds (and I don't want to encourage any of you), but I have to think it was something less than one in a million.

#143 -- Jose Vizcaino

He's been around so long that there's no room for any words under his statistics ... Which makes writing about him harder, because what can you write about Jose Vizcaino that hasn't already been written?

He'll be 35 next month. But on a brighter note, last season was the first since 1997 in which Vizcaino finished with more than 400 at-bats (406, to be precise). Also, last season he set a career best with a .397 slugging percentage, and if Vizcaino could be counted on for another season like 2002, the Astros might as well just dump Julio Lugo and give Vizcaino the full-time job.

But he can't, and so they shouldn't.

#15 -- Trot Nixon

You want consistent? Since reaching the majors for good, Nixon's slugging percentages look like this:


It should be said that those numbers are a bit misleading, because Nixon was rarely allowed to hit against left-handed pitchers in 1999 and 2000. So his consistency since then actually represents an improvement, as he's posted those slugging percentages while moving into more a full-time role (535 at-bats in 2001, 532 in 2002). We're still waiting for that big season, though, and Ron Shandler thinks it might come in 2003. With Nixon hitting more fly balls and fewer ground balls, with his big second half (16 homers, .519 slugging percentage), and with some other good stuff that I don't understand, Shandler says, "30 HR could be a no-brainer."

#84 -- Rafael Furcal

When is everybody going to get together on this guy's birthday?

According to Furcal's player card here at ESPN.com, he was born on October 4, 1977. According to The Scouting Notebook 2003 (now published by The Sporting News), Furcal was born on October 4, 1978.

And The Topps Company? Just like the Atlanta Braves, Topps continues to maintain that Furcal was born in 1980. It's funny, how the Braves continue to foist this fiction upon the suspecting public. Maybe they think that if they just keep repeating 1980 over and over again, it will somehow come true. And their shortstop will somehow return to having many growth years ahead of him.

#43 -- Javier Lopez

He's no Jose Cruz, but finding Lopez in my pack allows me to correct an error that I made the last time I wrote about the Braves catcher. In either a column or a chat or maybe both, I excoriated GM John Schuerholz for exercising a $7 million option for 2003 on Javier Lopez's contract.

I was wrong about that. It wasn't a team option, it was a player option, and of course Lopez and his agent didn't have to be the saltiest crackers in the world to exercise that one.

Instead, I should have excoriated Schuerholz for giving Lopez that option in the first place.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.