My Cardboard Habit: Looking at What’s Brewing in Topps 2012 Series I Baseball

by Kevin Kimmes

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always viewed the launch of the Topps Baseball set as one of the earliest signs of spring. Prior to spring training, or even the groundhog seeing (or not seeing) his shadow, the set marks the first sign of hope that another season is on its way despite it’s release in the middle of winter’s icy cold grip.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve made collecting the entire 660 card set a yearly tradition. This year, I thought I would use the blog to share my love for these cardboard keepsakes and to specifically focus on what Brewers fans can expect to find in the first half (Series I is composed of cards 1-330) of this years set .

We’re Number 1, We’re Number 1!

For the second consecutive year, Brewers slugger and 2011 NL MVP, Ryan Braun finds himself on the first card of the set. While this honor is a great one (former Brewers 1st baseman Prince Fielder had graced this spot in 2010 with a photo of his infamous September 2009 walkoff celebration), this year is “doubly” special for Braun.

Why you ask? Well, this year Topps decided to change up their “chase” variants (short printed versions of some cards with alternate photos and lower print runs) which for the last several years had been reserved for the retired greats of seasons past. This year, the focus is on celebrations and off field hijinks, leading to Braun’s card having 2 separate versions. Shown above, is the standard version of Braun’s card depicting him doing what he does best, knocking the crap out of the ball. His alternate card (pictured to the left), features Braun doing his signature “boxing” home run celebration with Fielder.

For those looking for the short print, your best chance is to check with your local hobby shop or eBay as the estimated average of finding a short printed card (of which there are 22) is only 2 per hobby case.

So, Who Else Made The Cut?

Below is a list of the other players who can be found in the main set donning a Brewers uniform. For convenience sake, I’ve broken this down into 2 groups: those currently with the team and those no longer with the team.

Currently With The Team:

# 29 Active NL Wins Leaders (Wolf)
# 66 Nyjer Morgan
#143 George Kottaras
#146 Carlos Gomez
#181 2011 NL Batting Average Leaders (Braun)
#210 Zack Greinke
#262 Shaun Marcum
#272 2011 NLDS Brewers Game 5 (Morgan)
#294 John Axford

No Longer With The Team:

# 57 Yuniesky Betancourt
# 77 2011 NL Home Run Leaders (Fielder)
#136 Casey McGehee
#224 2011 NL Runs Batted In Leaders (Fielder)
#327 Mark Kotsay

Of all of the cards listed above, the two that I love the most are the Nyjer Morgan cards. First, his standard card (#66) is the same photo of him, Braun, and Fielder that graced the cover of the August 29, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated (shown on the left). Due to the national exposure that this photo got, this has become one of those instant classics and was a real surprise to me when I pulled it out of a pack.

The other card to feature Morgan is the 2011 NLDS Brewers Game 5 card (#272). Here we find Morgan in full “Beast Mode” as he celebrates his walk off single that sent the Crew to the NLCS for the first time in franchise history. I love this photo choice so much simply due to the fact that it just sums up the energy and the enthusiasm of the 2011 campaign so perfectly. It’s Brewers baseball, in the post season, and “T-Plush” is supplying the charge. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Digging for Gold: The Inserts

Topps decided to go with a gold motif for this years inserts. This means everything from gold ring toppers, pins, coins and just plain old gold foil can be found in abundance in these subsets. Let’s look at which Brewers, and Brewers alum can be found here.

**Note – I have not included former Brewers below if the card they appear on shows them in another team’s uniform (sorry Minnesota Twins Paul Molitor), with the exception of cards featuring players on the Milwaukee Braves.**

Golden Moments

Golden moments is a 50 card set composed of cards celebrating historic moments in MLB history which were accomplished by not only those that have come before, but from today’s stars as well. Here we find two cards of interest: GM-10 which celebrates Prince Fielders “Wake Up, Walk Off” from this past season, as well as GM-15 which celebrates Ryan Braun’s passing of Robin Yount for the longest consecutive game on base streak in franchise history. An autographed version, relic version, an auto/relic variant, as well as a “24k gold infused” version numbered out of 5 pieces are also available for the Braun card.

Additionally, the following players each have relic cards in this subset:

GMR-CH Corey Hart
GMR-CM Casey McGehee
GMR-JA John Axford
GMR-JLU Jonathan Lucroy
GMR-PF Prince Fielder
GMR-PM Paul Molitor
GMR-SM Shaun Marcum
GMR-YG Yovani Gallardo

Golden Greats

This 75 card set celebrates the career highlights of 15 legends of the game (5 cards each). Brewers fans, or more specifically Milwaukee baseball fans, may be interested in checking out cards GG51-55 which feature none other than “Hammerin” Hank Aaron as a Milwaukee Brave. As with the Braun card found in Golden Moments, the Hank Aaron cards found in this set also have autographed (numbered out of 10), relic (numbered out of 10), and auto/relic parallels (numbered out of just 5). Additionally, there is a Gold Coin variation which has a production number based on the player’s jersey number (in this case 44) and contains an actual gold coin with the players likeness on it.

Timeless Talents

These 25 dual-player cards statistically compare a hero of yesteryear to a modern day player. As with the main set, this subset again finds Ryan Braun in the lead-off spot teamed up with none other than “The Ignitor”, Paul Molitor. A dual autographed parallel of this card also exists.

1987 Topps Minis

Topps classic wood grain design from their 1987 set gets the mini treatment in celebration of the sets 25th anniversary. Braun (TM-1) again leads off this 50 card subset and is joined by Brewers ace Zack Greinke (TM-35).

In The Name Relics

You want something no one else has? How about the actual letters off of this past years All-Star warmup jerseys? That is what Topps is offering in this subset where each piece is numbered 1/1. Fielder (shown at left), Weeks, and Braun all appear here meaning that Brewers Nation will need to figure out how to sort out the 17 total pieces available between these three players.

Topps Silk Collection

100 of the base sets cards were  also printed as mini version on gold silk and numbered out of only 50 pieces each. Included in this subset are Ryan Braun (SC-1), Zack Greinke (SC-47), Shaun Marcum (SC-62), and John Axford (SC-81).

Base Set Paralells

Each of the 330 card in the base set features two different parallels: Platinum and Wood. The platinum cards are numbered out of 61 pieces in honor of this being Topps 61st set. These are identical to the base cards with the exception that they sport a platinum colored border. Like the platinum parallels, the wood parallels are also identical to their base cards except that these cards are a tribute to the 1962 set and are all numbered 1/1.

So there you have it, a thorough look at the Brewers cards in this years set so far. I’ll be back with a look at Series II after it is released in June. In the mean time, if you have any questions regarding this set, or card collecting in general feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @kevinkimmes. Happy collecting!

Offseason 2012: Shortstop News

With the World Series mercifully over, we turn our attention to the hot stove.  Teams currently have until Thursday to negotiate exclusively with the 148 players who filed for free agency.  For the Brewers, that includes Prince Fielder, Mark Kotsay, Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Yuniesky Betancourt, Francisco Rodriguez, LaTroy Hawkins, and Takashi Saito.  Do not expect many, if any, of those players to reach a deal with the Brewers by that time.

Two pieces of news relevant to that free agent morass the Brewers are about to embark on.  First, the Brewers today announced that they had declined options on Rodriguez and Betancourt.  Both were prohibitively expensive in different ways; the former financially and the latter in terms of number of wins his retention would cost the 2012 team.  Yet because of a weak free agent market for shortstops – or, more accurately, a weak market in the Brewers’ price range – front office officials have left open the possibility of bringing Yuni back at a cheaper price than his $6M option.  You had to sense this coming when Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke defended Betancourt at their end-of-season press conferences.  That doesn’t lessen the blow if the team has to deal with another offensively and defensively challenged shortstop in 2012.

That brings me to the second piece of free agent news:  the Red Sox announced today that they had picked up SS Marco Scutaro’s 2012 option, depriving the Brewers of one potential cost-effective infield component.  I blogged about Scutaro here, indicating that the Brewers should pursue him as a cheap upgrade to Betancourt, but it appears the Red Sox recognized Scutaro’s versatility and effectiveness as well. With Rafael Furcal likely to remain with the Cardinals after a World Series run, the list of available shortstops beyond Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes is becoming quite unappealing.

One bit of housekeeping news:  This is the first post in Cream City Cable’s Offseason 2012 series.  This series will focus on Brewers’ trade and free agency rumors, and will include a position-by-position review in the coming weeks.  Each post in the series will have the Offseason 2012 tag for easy searching.  Stay tuned; the stove is just warming up!

On the Brighter Side

Although the Brewers dropped today’s game to the Dodgers, the Crew went 6-1 on the homestand and are 13-3 in August.  Their winning run over approximately the past month has been better than any I can remember in the years I’ve watched this team.

And so what have we learned?

Well, first, that number five starter Chris Narveson should use safety scissors.  I haven’t written a ton about Narveson this year, but I should have; Narveson is almost as good as any number five in the National League, and as my event services buddy Dennis noted today, on many teams would be a number four.*  After a little blowup against Minnesota on July 2 (4.2 IP, 7 ER, 2 HR), Narveson had settled down nicely.  In his six starts following that game, Narveson went 5-1 with a 3.50 ERA.  Opposing batters were hitting just .244 against him in that stretch.  And then, to continue the Brewers string of freak injuries this season, the guy is forced to the DL after cutting his pitching hand with a scissors trying to repair his glove.

But that leads to the second lesson:  Marco Estrada is an exceptional spot starter.  He received his first starting opportunity this year as a fill-in for Zack Greinke, who fractured a rib during spring training playing basketball.  Estrada made four starts for Greinke, two of them excellent, one decent, and one terrible.  He then went to the bullpen, where let’s just say the results weren’t impressive.  Between May 10 and August 11, Estrada’s 26 relief appearances got him a 1-6 record, 3 blown saves, four holds, and a 4.81 ERA.  There were some signs of life in all that, though; he held opposing batters to a .255 average, maintained a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 2.7, and threw 62% of his pitches for strikes.  All of which set the stage nicely for his two starts in Chris Narveson’s stead.  On August 13, Estrada threw five innings of shutout ball against the Pirates, striking out five and getting the win.  Today Estrada was nearly as effective, allowing only one run over five innings.  He didn’t get the win (the Brewers’ offense was blanked until the ninth inning by Clayton Kershaw), but that wasn’t his fault.

Third, there’s some confidence to be had on this ballclub.  Up and down the lineup, every player is contributing, not just the usuals like Braun and Fielder.  Yesterday Jerry Hairston Jr. came up with the big hit to give the Brewers a 3-1 lead against the Dodgers.  On Tuesday Mark Kotsay chipped in with a pinch-hit, walk-off RBI single.  Nyjer Morgan came up with a sac fly in extra innings to win the game on Sunday against the Pirates.  The pitching has been excellent; the Brewers’ staff owns the second-best National League August ERA at 2.51.  Incidentally, the Dodgers, with whom the Brewers just finished a four-game series, have the best NL August ERA (2.38), which might explain why the Brewers were able to muster only nine runs.  But what matters most are the wins, and there have been plenty of those lately.

The Brewers now hit the road to take on a few sub-.500 opponents in the 60-63 Mets and the 58-64 Pirates before returning home to face the Cubs beginning August 26.

Magic Number Watch: 32.

*There are a handful of guys in the NL I’d take over Narveson; Bud Norris or Vance Worley, for example.  And of course Brandon Beachy from the Braves in a heartbeat.

Kotsay comes through

The Brewers’ bench once looked like a place where veterans and youngsters alike go to end their careers.  Rotating through such light hitters as Juan Nieves (.140), Carlos Gomez (.224), Brandon Boggs (.158), Craig Counsell (.172), and Josh Wilson (.241), perhaps the biggest bench disappointment was 35-year-old OF Mark Kotsay.

Through June, Kotsay looked like he would never live up to even his modest $800k salary. April and May brought difficulties as Kotsay adjusted to a limited bench role, but his worst month would come in June when he hit just .194 with a .226 slugging percentage.  As injured bullpen arm Takashi Saito reached the terminal stages of his DL stint, Kotsay, set to earn a $100k incentive bonus, must have been considered internally as a prime candidate for release.

Kotsay must have received the message.  This month, he’s gone 10-25 with 2 HR and 6 RBI.  His biggest contribution:  a walk-off 2 RBI single to take the Brewers past the Reds tonight, 8-7.  Kotsay also chipped in with a solo home run in the sixth, which temporarily gave Milwaukee the lead.  Kotsay’s prowess at the plate could not come at a better time, either, as Ryan Braun has sat out the past six games with a calf strain.

Ron Roenicke claims he saw the turnaround coming.  “Early in the season, I know his batting average wasn’t real good, but he was really hitting the ball hard.  We went into Chicago, and he got a little out of (sorts) there and stayed that way for a couple of weeks.  He bounced out of it. He put together some unbelievable at-bats today. To hit that last one, a fastball in, that was impressive.”

It sure impressed Reds starter Mike Leake, who called the loss “by far the toughest one of the year.”

The bench continues to present problems for the Brewers.  Counsell has value because of his versatility in the field, but his .172 average coming off his unproductive pinch-hit at bat tonight would be the worst mark of his career. Carlos Gomez, who has settled into a full platoon with Nyjer Morgan in center, has still failed to use all of his talent at the dish.  George Kottaras and Josh Wilson have been somewhat productive, but the Brewers still lack a clutch player to bring in at critical junctures.  Hopefully, everyone else on the pine was taking notes from Kotsay today.

Tony LaRussa approves

Well, it appears that Tony LaRussa, along with every fan in Brewer nation, approves of the way the Brewers handled their three-game series against the Cardinals.  Following a disappointing 1-2 series against the Mets, the Brewers came back with a vengeance against the Central-division leaders, sweeping the Redbirds and claiming sole possession of first place.  LaRussa was uncharacteristically complimentary:

“I don’t want to be melodramatic. This is June and we have to be ready for Washington on Tuesday. We came in here to win a series and they outmanaged us and outplayed us.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the series.  Ron Roenicke tinkered with the lineup early and often, giving the offensively inept Yuniesky Betancourt consecutive days off on Friday and Saturday.  Craig Counsell, who received consecutive starts in his stead, had a huge day on Friday, going 3-3 with 3 runs and a walk.  That change allowed Roenicke to keep the slumping McGehee in the lineup, who came up with two hits and a walk in the series and smoked a few balls for outs.*  On Sunday, Mark Kotsay got the nod in center field and came up big with an RBI double in the sixth, which sparked a Brewers rally.  Clinging to a one-run lead, Roenicke replaced Kotsay with Carlos Gomez at the top of the ninth, a genius move that may have saved the game when Gomez made a spectacular grab on a ball Colby Rasmus hit to deep center. 

So, I’d say that, with respect to the question posed here, Ron Roenicke has definitely shown he can play with the big kids.  After all, it’s not often that a first-year manager receives praise from a future hall-of-fame counterpart.

*I continue to believe that McGehee is the key to consistency in this team’s offense.  If McGehee comes around, Roenicke doesn’t have to worry about also starting Gomez and Betancourt; but a slumping McGehee combined with those two (or Nieves at catcher) spells disaster.  Without McGehee, this is a two-dimensional offense (Braun and Fielder) that does not look consistent enough for a deep playoff run.

The Road Drought

I’m currently reading Lance Henriksen‘s biography, Not Bad For A Human, a charming little piece in which the aging actor recalls his chaotic childhood traveling the world on his own and trying to find his way in life.  As a young boy, he remembers an instance in which his mother made him appear on a radio talk show in New York.  Callers would respond to the sympathetic pleas of guests with donations.  According to Henriksen, his mother made up the biggest sob story you could ever think of, and he walked off the show with $100.  His mother did what she needed to to allow herself and her children to eat.

You’d like to think that the Brewers have reached the point where they’d go to the same lengths to score some runs on the road.  The Crew stranded eight men on base last night against the Dodgers, most of those at the hands of Carlos Gomez.  They were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and 2-for-14 on Monday night.  As Tom Haudricourt points out, after Tuesday the Brewers were batting just .211 on the road with RISP.

Beg, borrow, or steal.  Do whatever you need to to get some runs across the plate.

The Brewers finally looked desperate enough on Wednesday.  There was aggressive baserunning, as Corey Hart got caught stealing second but then legged out a triple on a ball deep to left center.  There were crushing doubles from Mark Kotsay and Prince Fielder that would have been home runs anywhere other than Petco Park.  Hell, Jonathan Lucroy even stood in there as a ball grazed him with the bases loaded for an RBI hit by pitch.

Ron Roenicke doesn’t know what to make of his team’s inconsistent offense.  For that, the first-year manager can be forgiven.  For those of us who have watched this group of players for the last several years – Braun, Hart, Fielder, Weeks, McGehee – inconsistency has just become part of the game.  They run hot and they run cold.  It’s not something you try to explain; it’s just something you accept and try to make the best of.  And when your bats go cold, you hope that your pitching is there to compensate.  In past years, it hasn’t, but even though 25% of the season is behind us, there’s still hope that Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum can make the difference in 2011.

Embrace the inconsistency, Brewer fans, and keep your sanity.

Brewers/Astros Postgame, 4.22.2011

The floodgates opened on Friday night as the Brewers dumped fourteen runs on the Houston Astros.  The Astros scored seven of their own, but could not keep their pitchers from throwing batting practice to the Brewers’ lineup.

Yovani Gallardo, recipient of the Silver Slugger award for the best-hitting National League pitcher, padded his resume for another award, smacking a solo home run in the fourth inning.  It’s his franchise-leading ninth career shot.

Gallardo was not sharp on the bump, though, allowing four earned runs in only six innings of work.  For the third straight start, Gallardo had control problems, throwing only 69 of his 113 pitches for strikes.  He walked one and struck out seven.  Gallardo could have easily walked more, as he was behind in the count often and worked two-ball counts to thirteen hitters.

Gallardo did get the win, though, thanks to the Brewers offensive outpouring.  Every starter but Fielder had a hit, and Fielder did his own damage with two walks and three runs.  Weeks went 1-2 with two walks, and Gomez, Braun, Kotsay and McGehee each had three hits, including three-run shots from both Gomez and Braun; Kotsay and McGehee knocked in two apiece.  Betancourt had a two-hit, two-RBI game.

The highlight of the night: a standing ovation for Ryan Braun, who signed a five-year, $105 million deal that will keep him a Brewer until 2020.  I was at the game, and it was spectacular to see over 31,000 fans cheering our homegrown star whose contracts have broken the mold.  Braun’s first at-bat was delayed a minute or so as everyone cheered.

MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy interviewed Braun after the game.  “I had no idea how to respond,” Braun said. “There’s no blueprint, I
really had no idea what to do. I was trying not to get too emotional. I
didn’t want to take away from my routine of the at-bat and I didn’t want
to disrespect the other team.”

In the next at-bat, Braun rewarded the applause with a no-doubt three-run home run to left center field. 

“I don’t think I could have scripted it much better,” he said. “It was
pretty cool. Definitely a special night for me individually and a great
night for us as a team.”