A place where Colorado Rockies baseball card collectors (all 3 of us) can waste some time reading about our favorite sport. The Rockies and their cards will be the primary focus, but I like to go off on tangents as well so anything and everything baseball related may be covered here.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Rating the Rookie Cups 2.0 - 1999


Expansion is one of the topics that has been on people's minds during the pandemic.  Talking heads in both MLB and the NBA have discussed adding franchises in order to recoup revenue from the shortened 2020 season and the potential for much smaller attendance in 2021 as well.  New franchises have always been obligated to pay exorbitant fees to the rest of the league in order to join.  It serves as a large upfront payment to teams in exchange for taking a slightly smaller piece overall league revenue in the future.  Basically teams are banking on the new franchises adding enough additional revenue to the overall pot to offset taking a smaller percentage, but just in case they don't rise enough, they require the fee up front.  As you might surmise based on my choice of team, I like expansion.  People will complain about "watering down" the league and making an overall worse product.  While I agree with the first point to an extent, I disagree with the second completely. 

With this topic in mind, let's take a look at the last Topps Rookie All Star team that played during an expansion year.  1998 served as the debut season for both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay (then) Devil Rays. Thanks to those two teams, 1998 allowed for 50 additional roster spots in the major leagues.  As you might imagine, a significant portion of those players were rookies.  Would it prove to provide a lot of competition for the RAST positions or would it allow the cream to rise to the top even easier?  As you will see, in most cases, the latter proved to be true.

That season was also significant for the two other expansion teams that began 5 years earlier.  1998 served as the year after the Florida Marlins first World Championship and their first fire sale.  In effect after trading away their championship roster for prospects, the Marlins were really a third expansion team in 1998.  1998 was also the first time a member of the Colorado Rockies occupied a spot on the Topps Rookie All Star team.  The Rockies originally built their team around veterans which did not give rookies the chance to shine.  It worked somewhat because they made the playoffs in their third season.  By 1998 though, the Blake Street Bombers were starting to be replaced with younger options.  

With all that in mind, let's take a look at the 1998 Topps Rookie All Star Team.

A.J. Hinch - C - Athletics - Season Rank (39 of 61) - Career Rank (51 of 61)

Todd Helton - 1B - Rockies - Season Rank (8 of 61) - Career Rank (2 of 61)

Miguel Cairo - 2B - Devil Rays - Season Rank (33 of 61) - Career Rank (29 of 61)

Bobby Smith - 3B - Devil Rays - Season Rank (34 of 61) - Career Rank (57 of 61)
Mike Caruso - SS - White Sox - Season Rank (T18 of 61) - Career Rank (52 of 60)

Ben Grieve - OF - Athletics - Season Rank (16 of 184) - Career Rank (108 of 184)

Mark Kotsay - OF - Marlins - Season Rank (54 of 184) - Career Rank (61 of 184)

Magglio Ordonez - OF - White Sox - Season Rank (88 of 184) - Career Rank (20 of 184)

Kerry Wood - RHP - Cubs - Season Rank (19 of 50) - Career Rank (15 of 50)

Jesus Sanchez - LHP - Marlins - Season Rank (46 of 49) - Career Rank (48 of 49)



Here are the players I feel should have made the team.  This is based solely on rookie years stats and is a straight up "battle of the stats" with my opinion not factoring into the decision.  I give a chance to all rookies from that season that either played in 100 games, started 15 games, or had at least 10 saves.  If there happen to be less than 2 rookies that meet those qualifications at a position, then I will just compare the top two that don't meet parameters.  In this case, and all cases before 2011, I am retroactively adding a relief pitcher spot to the team.

Catcher - A.J. Hinch - Athletics

This is one of three positions that only had one qualifying rookie in Topps choice Hinch.  So I lowered the parameters to 81 games played and found three competitors in Eli Marrero of the Cardinals, Paul Bako of the Tigers, and Jason Varitek of the Red Sox.  The results were surprisingly close as current Tigers manager and former Astros pariah Hinch barely hung onto the spot over Marrero.
First Base - Todd Helton - Rockies

Of all of the positions I have examined in the original series and the beginnings of this one, 1B in 1998 is arguably the strongest of all.  And yet Todd Helton still easily dominated over 4 other qualifying rookies in Travis Lee of the Diamondbacks, Brad Fullmer of the Expos, Derrek Lee of the Marlins, and Greg Norton of the White Sox.  To prove how good this year was, I reran the 1B season numbers with Travis Lee in place of Helton and Lee came in 14th best of all time.  The rookies that didn't qualify are even more impressive as 1998 was the debut season for (then) first basemen David Ortiz, Paul Konerko, Sean Casey, and Richie Sexson as well, but they only played half seasons.

Second Base - Miguel Cairo - Devil Rays

This is the second position that had a single qualifier in Cairo.  I had to lower the requirement to 75 games in order to find competition.  Cairo easily held the spot over Orlando Cabrera of the Expos and Frank Catalanotto of the Tigers.

Third Base - Bobby Smith - Devil Rays

Here is our third position with just a single qualifier.  I had to go even lower to 70 games to find competition, but they were a couple of pretty good names in Aramis Ramirez of the Pirates and Adrian Beltre of the Dodgers.  Smith's career pales in comparison to both players, but he can always say that his 1998 full season easily eclipsed the struggling half seasons of the two future All Stars.

Shortstop - Mike Caruso - White Sox

There were four qualifiers at this position including actual winner Caruso, Desi Relaford of the Phillies, future MVP Miguel Tejada of the Athletics, and Lou Collier of the Pirates.  Caruso's career year easily outpaced the weak years of the others.  I believe Caruso's career would have lasted a lot longer if he started in the 60s or 70s, but in the powerhouse SS era of the late 90s/early 2000s he just couldn't keep up.

Outfield - Ben Grieve - Athletics, Mark Kotsay - Marlins, Magglio Ordonez - White Sox

Usually when I compare outfields there are 1 or 2 players that dominate and 1 or 2 that have closer competition with the remainder of the rookies.  This was not the case here as 1998 AL ROY Grieve, Kotsay, and Ordonez were clearly the top 3 outfielders and it wasn't even really close among the additional 7 qualifiers.  The strongest challengers among the other 7 were Randy Winn of the Devil Rays, Todd Dunwoody of the Marlins and David Dellucci of the Diamondbacks, but as I said it wasn't really close.

RH Starter - Kerry Wood - Cubs

Before I looked at any numbers, along with Helton and Grieve, 1998 NL ROY Wood was the one player I was assured would not be challenged.  Boy, was I wrong.  There was a ton of competition here.  So much so that I actually had to cut off the challengers at 21 starts instead of 15, and I still ended up with 10 qualifiers.  Wood barely squeaked by over Cuban defectors Rolando Arrojo of the Devil Rays and Orlando Hernandez of the Yankees.  Steve Woodard of the Brewers and Masato Yoshii of the Mets also put up decent competition and could have won themselves in a less competitive year.

LH Starter - Jesus Sanchez - Marlins

This was probably the closest race of all, but not necessarily in a good way.  There were 5 lefty qualifiers in 1998 and none of them were really all that impressive.  Sanchez ended up winning a close race over Bobby M. Jones of the Rockies and Eric Milton of the Twins.  Of course, there were probably 6 or 7 right handers that would have had this spot if they were southpaws.  But they weren't, so Sanchez retains.

Relief Pitcher - Kerry Ligtenberg - Braves

Since there was no RP spot on the 1998, I had a blank slate, although I would imagine the 30 saves from Ligtenberg would have gotten him the honor from Topps as well.  He was the only one to meet the save criteria, but I lowered the bar to 8 and got 4 competitors.  It wasn't particularly suspenseful for the career year of Ligtenberg, but Bob Howry of the White Sox and Matt Mantei of the Marlins were fairly competitive. 


100% - Perfect, 80-90% - Great, 60-70% - Good, 40-50% - Poor, < 40% - Utter Failure


With this group, Topps got 10 out of 10 correct for a 100% average.  I anticipate using this space to criticize Topps for their poor decisions, but here I have to give credit where credit is due.  Out of all of the teams I have reviewed over the years, this is the first time I have agreed with Topps on every single choice.  That being said, most of the choices for this team were very easy, but there were still a couple of toss ups. When all was said and done, Topps deserves kudos here. 

Final Thoughts on the Team

Strongest Team Members (rookie) - Ben Grieve, Todd Helton, Kerry Wood
Strongest Team Members (career) - Todd Helton, Magglio Ordonez, Kerry Wood
Weakest Team Members (rookie) - Jesus Sanchez, A.J. Hinch, Bobby Smith
Weakest Team Members (career) - Bobby Smith, Jesus Sanchez, Mike Caruso
Rockies on the team (Present and future) - 1 (Helton)

Best Card (IMHO) - Todd Helton (as I have said this is probably my favorite rookie cup card ever)

Worst Card (IMHO) - Mike Caruso (Caruso's back was annoyingly printed upside down just like 2020 Topps Update)

This particular team is a bit of an enigma.   The team was filled with dominating rookies at their positions, but many of the players also peaked in their rookie year.  Also, for me personally this set has my favorite rookie cup card, but is also one of my least favorite flagship designs of all time.  This team does not have any current Hall of Fame players, although Todd Helton will likely get in as soon as the writers get their heads out of their collective behinds.  Looking back, this team overall looks very much like a rookie team from an expansion year.  Several of the team members peaked in their rookie year when the opportunity was there to play more than maybe their talent suggested they should.  That being said, several very good careers came from this team as well.  Altogether, I would rate the 1998 squad as a below average team, right on the edge of being a bottom 10 team.  


The 2011 team pictured on 2012 Topps cards.

Thanx for reading.


Fuji said...

Kudos to Topps for going 10 for 10 with this team and using some really nice photographs for these rookie cup cards. I must have been opening a lot of baseball back in 1999, because I actually recognize a lot of their names (Smith & Sanchez are the exceptions).

The Diamond King said...

That really is impressive, Topps going 10/10. Bet that won't happen again. I agree with you about the Helton card being great, and I hope he does get in the Hall. My favorite Rockie of all time.