Friday, August 9, 2019

An Adequate Substitute

I don't know about you, but my wife and I have been trying to cut down on pop.  I'm training for the Chicago Marathon and, as such, my better half and I are both attempting to be more health conscious.  The sugar content in pop is heavy enough that one can lose 5-10 pounds alone from cutting out Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and crew and, lord knows, I don't need to be carrying any extra weight around when I'm traversing 26 miles around the streets of the Windy City.  However, eliminating the carbonated treats from our diets has been easier said than done.

Water, juice, and tea have been the beverages of choice in our household for a while now (in fact, we don't even keep soda in the home at all); however, sometimes, we just want a drink with both some flavor and a little bit of fizz.  As such, LaCroix sparkling water has been kept on hand, just in case we feel ourselves jonesing for a can of RC.

Of course, the thing about LeCroix is that it's not pop... it's just a stand-in.  While it does quench the thirst and urge for the sugary substance for a while, in the end, it doesn't completely eliminate the craving for a Coke.  LeCroix is just a temporary substitute that helps fill in when needed - it's not the final solution.  Speaking of which....

Jonathan LeCroix... ermmmm... I mean, Jonathan Lucroy is now a Cub and, boy oh boy, does this sentence feel strange to type.  The former two-time All-Star absolutely punished the North Siders as a member of the divisional rival Brewers for many years during the first half of this decade and now the catcher is one of them.  Weird... but, that's baseball.

Anyway, much like the beverage that sounds so similar to his surname, Lucroy is a temporary substitute, a fill-in for someone who we Cubs fans would much rather have behind the dish, right now.  Just days after the trading deadline, Willson Contreras came up lame while trying to beat out a grounder.  As it turned out, the All-Star had pulled his hamstring and quickly found himself on the IL, where he will reside for at least the next month.  Suddenly, although the market had officially closed, the Cubs found themselves in need of a capable replacement and they would been unable to pull a straight trade for help.  This was made all the more annoying by the fact that they had just traded Martin Maldonado, their briefly tenured third-stringer, on the day of the deadline.  All in all, it felt like a karmic gut punch.

Luckily for Theo and crew, the Angels had just happened to DFA Jonathan Lucroy and he quickly cleared waivers, meaning that a well-respected signal-caller just so happened to hit the free agent market at the very instance that they needed one.  Karmic balance had been restored!

Of course, Jonathan Lucroy had been DFA'ed for a reason - his halcyon days have long since passed him by.  Since being traded away from the Brew Crew as a free agent in the middle of the 2016 season, his bat has grown less and less potent.  In that time, he's bounced around from the Rangers, to the Rockies, to the A's, and to the Angels while his WAR has slowly decreased from his peak of 5.4 in 2014 to 0.4 in 2018 and 0.1 in 2019, thus far.  At the same time, his once elite pitch-framing skills have diminished to slightly below average.  All told, he's definitely been trending in the wrong direction for a couple of years now.

Furthermore, Jonathan may very well be damaged goods.  Only a month ago, Lucroy was forced out of action by a controversial play at the plate in which he was carted off of the field, concussed and with a broken nose:

Yikes. Also, ouch.

All this being know, the risk is absolutely worth taking.  Seeing as he was DFA'ed and cleared waivers, the cash-strapped Cubs are only responsible for paying Lucroy a prorated cut of the league minimum, with the Angels on the hook for the rest of his contract.  Furthermore, a team in the thick of a tight pennant race needs all the catching depth it can have and, as good as Victor Caratini has been, they still need someone else to help shoulder the load.  Why not see if Jonathan has something left in the tank - maybe this move to a contender will spark something in the gut of the 33-year old?

Meanwhile, with Jonathan officially making his Cubs debut last night, that meant that my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection needed updating.  Luckily, since Lucroy was a multiple time All-Star - as illustrated by the 2014 Update single you see above - for a small market team, that meant he showed up in a lot of baseball card products throughout this decade.  With that being the case, I was able to pull several singles from my trade stacks for potential inclusion, besides the cards you've already seen in this post:


As you can see, I have a fair smattering of cards from his time with Milwaukee.  I think that my favorite of this bunch is the 2016 Bunt single; of course, in this I am a touch biased as that particular product features one of my most preferred card designs of all-time.  What can I say?  I am a sucker for incorporating team logos into the design layout.  However, one could also make a strong argument for including the Panini Donruss card in my CATRC due to it's lack of logos.  Due to that characteristic, one could cross their eyes and squint and it would look almost like a Cubs card!

After examining all of the options, I think I'm going to have to go with the Bunt, but I would also love to hear your opinions.  Do you think that the action shot found on his 2010 rookie is the best way to go?  Perhaps you're a fan of the "play at the plate" shot from the 2017 Rangers card seen earlier in this write-up?  Please feel free to weigh-in on the matter in the comment section below!

In the meantime, here's hoping that Jonathan Lucroy fills the role of substitute as well and as admirably as a can of LeCroix does for pop.  He's not meant to be a long-term fix, but he's quite capable of providing some enjoyment of his own in the absence of soda pop... I mean, Willson Contreras.  For good measure, he even had a pair of hits and RBI in his Cubbie debut last night (let's just pretend the catcher's interference leading to the tying run scoring didn't happen).

Welcome to Chicago and to the CATRC, Jonathan "LeCroix" Lucroy!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Lighting the Wick

The Cubs' bullpen has been... not so great for the majority of 2019.  As of this morning, the Chicago relief corps ranks fourth in the Major Leagues in blown saves, with 21 mishaps, and are just two away from the Padres in leading all of baseball.  It's been one of many weak spots on a flawed, but surprisingly competitive roster, besides the wildly inconsistent offense, off the field drama, and artificially strained budget.

Besides effectiveness on the diamond, health has been a bit of an issue, as well.  Just yesterday, Craig Kimbrel - the high-priced closer who was supposed to save the pen - was placed on the 10-Day injured list due to some knee problems, a place where the main setup man, Pedro Strop, already resides as he deal with neck pain.  To make things worse, Brandon Kintzler, who has probably been the most consistent and reliable fireman for the Cubs this season and de facto closer, was seen wincing in obvious discomfort after coming off of the mound last night, making it seem likely that yet another high-leverage arm will be unavailable, for at least a few days.  In short, there's going to be some shuffling in the bullpen over the next few days.

Enter Rowan Wick.

Acquired in a minor trade with San Diego over the winter (for minor leaguer, Jason Vosler), Rowan Wick was pressed into service on the Cubs' Major League roster in a previous rash of injuries.  So far, all he's done is produce, posting a 1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings with 15 K's against just 7 BB's, and throw gas (topping out at 98 mph).  In fact, rather than send him back to the minors during a roster jam, Theo decided to admit defeat and cut bait with high profile, off-season signing, Brad Brach.  Obviously, the front office thinks quite highly of Rowan's work thus far and, with this current rash of injuries, it seems likely that he'll now be needed for some high-leverage innings. 

But, you might be asking yourself, if Rowan Wick is this blossoming bullpen arm, why is he listed as a catcher on the card above?  Well, the former Cardinals farmhand spent the first four years of his professional career on the other side of the dish.

Drafted in the 9th round of the 2012 draft by the Cubs' arch rivals, as a catcher, Rowan Wick could not hit worth a lick.  In those first four seasons, Rowan never rose above High A ball and served as  little more than depth, mostly playing the backup backstop.  However, his arm drew rave reviews throughout the organization, as the back of this 2012 Bowman Draft Prospects Refractor indicates:

With that in mind, after a brief experiment towards the end of 2015, Rowan converted to mound duty full-time for 2016.  After some bumps and bruises in the high minors with the Red Bird chain, he was allowed to be claimed on waivers by the Padres in February of 2018 and he would make his debut with the Friars that summer and catch the eyes of the Cubs' front office.

Speaking of eye-catching, this refractor that I was able to snag for just 35 cents off of EBay is absolutely dazzling.  I don't have many such shiny cards in my collection, as I generally just grab the cheapest base cards available as guys are acquired by the Big League club; however, this deal was simply too good to pass up.  I mean, just look at how lovely this card looks under the light:

Man, a Cardinals card has never looked so good!

I also get a kick out of the fact that this now Cubs pitcher is shown at the plate and listed as a catcher.  This dichotomy makes for a quirky new addition to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Although, it might not be resting in that binder for all that long, seeing as the reliever appears to becoming a major part of the Cubs' bullpen.  I can see him earning his first bonafide Major League card (he only has Bowmans and MiLB team issues to his name, thus far) soon, either by showing up in Update (they love to jam rookies in there) or being included in the ever-growing Topps Total checklist.  As for the latter option, the stated goal is to showcase as much of the 2019 rosters as possible, so if Rowan's usage spikes in the last two months of the regular season, it would "totally" make sense.  In the meantime, this refractor will hold down the spot quite nicely.

While we wait and see, I've gone ahead and whipped up my own take on Total for Rowan:

At any rate, welcome to the CATRC, Rowan Wick, and to the inner circle of the bullpen.  Here's hoping that the results continue to impress and you help to solidify that leaky and creaky facet of the roster!..

Monday, August 5, 2019

Asgardian Cardboard

While most of the money in our hobby goes to the card companies, grading resources, supply manufacturers, and secondhand vendors, another large source of collective collecting budgets go towards shipping services.  The United States Postal Service, UPS, DHL, FedEx, etc. get a lot of the blogosphere's money in exchange for delivering our PWE's, RAK's, trade packages, Ebay winnings and sellings, redemptions, etc.  Sure, baseball cards are not the most lucrative part of their business model, but there's no doubt that our hobby and community would not be what it is today without these mailing services.

Now,one of these titans of shipping is getting directly involved in the hobby.

What you see above is a sheet of classic card reprints, produced and printed by Asgard Press and sold in limited FedEx Office centers across the United States.  These perforated cards come in panels - of which there are four - featuring eight cards each from the early tobacco card era.  According to Asgard, the cards chosen originally hail from the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection, which was donated to the Library of Congress by Carl Sandburg in 1954.

While I do not use the services of FedEx for my mailing needs - I stick to the good, old fashioned USPS -  I was made aware of this new oddball reprint set by Twitter, as the following was retweeted into my timeline:

Right after I saw this tweet, you darn well better believe that I took to the official Asgard Press website to try and decipher which cards were selected for their tribute to vintage baseball.  I expected the checklist to be made up of the big names from the Deadball time period - Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Chief Bender, etc.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the cards chosen for reprint turned out to be much more obscure ballplayers.  In fact, I was ecstatic to find out that there might even be a card that I need in this collation.  More on that later in the post.

By Odin's beard, was I ever excited about this Asgardian discovery!

Without haste, I was soon Googling where the closest FedEx was stationed.  Turns out the nearest location was only a stone's throw away from my home, in the neighboring suburb of Oak Lawn:

As it happened, I had some time after work on Thursday to swing by and see if my store was one of the lucky locations to have these baseball cards bestowed upon their customers.  I wandered in that afternoon - the only customer without an armful of packages to ship or documents to copy - in hopes of buying baseball cards rather than mailing them.  Thankfully, I was elated to discover that my quest for "vintage" cardboard turned out to be quite successful:

There they were - all four available sheets - right near the front of the retail space, on a rotating rack with several other Asgard Press paper products.  I was so excited that I think I might have peed a little...  I hadn't actually expected Oak Lawn, IL to be one of the chosen few!

Admittedly, I was initially distracted by the lovely, retro comic book cover notecards, vintage travel poster prints, and college football stationary put out by Asgard.  Now, this isn't the same Asgard that brought us Thor, Loki, and Valkyrie.  That is, not unless Thor traded in his hammer, Mj√∂lnir, for an enchanted printing press.  From what I can gather, based on their official website, Twitter account, and the products I saw in store, Asgard Press specializes in capturing nostalgia on paper goods.  The company started out with fancy calendars in 1999 and have since expanded with healthy selections of note cards, posters, journals, postcards, and other ephemera.  Their tagline is "vintage paper goods" and their slogan is "old school is now in session;" so, I guess it wasn't much of a mystery as to what they're all about.

In all honesty, introducing some baseball cards into their product portfolio is positively perfect for their desired aesthetic.

Only briefly abstracted, I was able to quickly refocus and locate the specific sheet for which I came looking:

Like I mentioned earlier, there was a specific card in this set that had caught my fancy and it came as part of "plate no. 2."  After quickly browsing through the rest of Asgard's displays - they must do a lot of business with FedEx - I plopped down my $4.95 and went about my merry way.

Any guesses as to which one of these singles I was chasing?  I'll give you a hint - it has something to do with my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.

Once I got home and freed my sheet from it's plastic, cardboard-backed prison, I discovered that these cards are printed on little more than ink-jet printer compatible cardstock.  Thin, flexible, and fragile, they feel about as thick as your average index card.

Speaking of cards, the cards themselves are high-resolution and slightly enlarged scans of tobacco cards from the aforementioned Library of Congress donation.  Maintaining the original aspect ratio, the cards have been blown up to standard height (3.5 inches) but still remain short of standard width.   Also, seeing as they are simply scans of already existing, century old antiques, all of the flaws and damage from the originals carried over to the reprints, as best exemplified by the two instances below.

Personally, I like this "flawed" characteristic, as I feel as though it adds some charm to the Asgards and makes them feel a touch more "authentic" than your normal C.C.C. re-do.  How do you feel about the paper loss and stain carryover?  Would you find it distracting, perhaps?

Also, as you can tell from the above scans, all of the cards feature full backs, filled with copy and advertising, just as the originals did.  Furthermore, we have a varied selection of cards from the early 20th century.  Although Asgards erroneously lists the cards as all being from the famous T206 set, which was released through 16 different brands owned by the American Tobacco Company from 1909-11 and is the source of the iconic Honus Wagner card, none of the cards on sheet number two actually are from that seemingly infinite checklist.  In fact, all of the cards included are part of the 1911 T205 release.

The baseball diamond was turned into a picture frame for the American League portion of the T205 release and it truly is one of the most clever and beautiful layouts in baseball card history.

The National League portion of the T205 checklist is a tad more bare bones, featuring a bust shot portrait on a plain, colored background, and maintaining the unifying gold/brown borders which define the set.  Again, this Ed Barger Dodger card is a fine example of the damage and staining which were transferred from the original artifacts to the reprints.

While the American League cards are far more detailed, the National League examples are a fine study in the KISS principle.  This has nothing to do with costumed rock stars, platform boots, or fake blood though - KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.  The more you cram into a design, oftentimes, the more crowded and confusing a piece will get.  Although, the creators of these cards once again flipped back to the polar opposite for the sampling of minor leaguers included with the premiums:

There are 12 minor league cards in the original set which made use of an ornate, plaque-like frame.  Two of these bush leaguers were reproduced by Asgard - a Charles Hanford with "paper loss" was displayed previously and George Merritt you can see directly above.

While all three templates used in the T205 set, I find that they are all quite pleasing to the eyes.  Overall though, I think my favorite is the relatively bare bones design of the NL cards.  Of course, that might just be because my college graphic design professor personally chiseled the KISS principle into my skull; however, the bright, bold colors and wonderful drawn portraits get to speak for themselves during the Senior Circuit section, whereas they are more a secondary feature to the crowded designs of the other two.  That said, that is merely the opinion of one insignificant card blogger - what do you think about the three layouts, which is your preferred design?

Now, if you've been counting along at home, you might have noticed that I've showcased seven of the eight total cards included on the Asgardian panel.  With the overview of the company, cards, and quality out of the way, it's time to spotlight my "chase" card, the pasteboard which caused me to drop everything I was doing to run out and purchase this product.  Without any further ado, lease allow me to drop the curtain on the card of the hour:

That's right, I could care less about inner circle Hall of Famer Ty Cobb's inclusion; I'm here for that sweet, sweet Wilbur Goode (or Good, depending on the source) of the Boston Rustlers.  More like, Wilbur Great, am I right?

Okay, so here's the deal, I haven't abandoned my Cubs fandom to become a super collector of the Atlanta Braves and their previous franchise iterations.  The reason that this random, Deadball Era ballplayer who has long faded into obscurity has captured my attention is the fact that Wilbur was traded from Boston - just a year after this card originally hit the market - to the Cubbies, where he would spend the next five years patrolling the outfield of the West Side Grounds and, later, Wrigley Field.  Thus, I needed a card of Wilbur for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection as part of my quest to collect at least one card of every man to EVER suit up for my favorite franchise, no matter how brief or how long ago.

For his career, the journeyman fly-chaser post a career .258/.322/.342 batting line, mostly as a reserve piece for the Yankees, Naps, Rustlers, Cubs, Phillies, and White Sox for eleven total seasons in the Majors.  Far from being a star, the ballplayer appears on very few cards (two that I can identify) and all of them date from his ancient playing days - therefore, they are tough to track down and tougher on this cheapskate's wallet.  Therefore, I have no problem whatsoever with using a reprint card to fill an otherwise nigh-unfillable gap in my favorite binder.  To say it was a pleasant surprise that could cross another one of these tricky names off of my "needs" list with a trip to FedEx (of all paces) and an Abraham Lincoln flash card would be an immense understatement. 

Before I go, I have to ask, what do you think about these Asgard cards?  Do they seem like something you might be inclined to spend some money on, maybe as an impulse buy as you wait in line to ship a box of cards to a fellow blogger?  Do you see them as cheap and irrelevant in a see of endless sea of reprints and forgeries?  Perhaps you don't even see products such as these as "true" baseball cards at all and I am cheating by using such items to fill needs in my collection?  Please feel free to weigh-in in the comment section below.  Personally, I am of the opinion that any card that fills a need within my CATRC is good enough for me!

In the end, I am still reeling from filling such an obscure need in my niche collection with a trip to FedEx... and I didn't even ship or receive any mail.  That's one of the best parts about collecting this way - you just never know where the cards are going to come from.

Thank you very much, Asgard.  Sorry you got destroyed by Hela and Surtur at the end of Thor Ragnarok - tough luck there.  Your paper products are quite fascinating though!

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Oddball Cards, Ahoy!

My family went on vacation to the Wisconsin Dells last week - it's an annual family tradition that dates back to when I was in middle school, as Midwesterners do.  Since I am the only sibling who has completely (maybe) grown up, moved out of the house, and gotten married, I have not gone the last few years and instead have taken up responsibility for dog sitting.  Seeing as how I hate waterparks, pools, and getting wet in general, this arrangement is a-okay with me.

During the family's trip to the waterpark capital of the world, my wife and I drive the few miles from our apartment to my parents' house a couple of times a day to let the puppies out, clean up any mess they've made, top off the food and water dishes, as well as do a little bit of laundry and raid the pantries.  Plus, I get to play with the doggos.  All in all, it's a mutually beneficial arrangement.

A couple of days into their trip, while I was conducting one of those aforementioned raids for snacks through the pantry, a big, blue box of cereal caught my eye:

At first, I was taken aback by the fact that Chips Ahoy! now has their own branded cereal - no wonder we Americans are fat.  With the re-release of Oreo-O's, are we now in the middle of a no holds barred, cookie breakfast cereal bout?  Will we soon be seeing "Keebler Elf Krunch" or "Mrs. Fields Flakes" stacked on store shelves?  Yes, this is what really goes on in the wasteland that is my mind.

Once I got past that cookie conundrum, I noticed something else about the box of teeny tiny cookies - something you've probably already noticed by now.  According to the big and bold yellow ribbon on the top of the packaging, these "parts of a balanced breakfast" come with trading cards!

Now, I'm no soccer fan - I've been to exactly one game in my life and left in frustration as the contest would end in a scoreless tie - but, I will always go gaga over unexpected, oddball cards.  So, even though my parents weren't around and thus there was no "grown up to help to help you cut the cards out of the box," I grabbed a pair of scissors and set about freeing these footballers from their cardboard holding cell:

I wonder what my family will think when they reach in the pantry for their morning cereal and find this on their shelves?  Hey - they left me alone and unsupervised!

I knew that this promotion was going on this summer; but, seeing as how I am not much of a soccer fan and I have been trying to stay away from sugary breakfast cereals, I had not paid too much attention to these oddballs.  Plus, when Topps, Major League Soccer, and Post first joined forces last year to launch this promotion, I did my sampling of the product then - so, I guess you could say I got my fill.  However, the temptation was far to great when I found them simply staring at my face in my parent's pantry.

Without any further ado, let's take a closer look at the unexpected treasures themselves:

This panel is slanted very heavily towards forwards - is that where all the star power is in soccer?  I truly do not know.  All I know, is that as a Windy City native, I sure would have appreciated the inclusion of a Chicago Fire player.  Apparently, there are four different, four cards panels available on the backsides of Post products and not a single one of them features a single "Fireman."  Where's the love for Bastian Schweinsteiger?

Also, today I learned that LA has not one, but two professional soccer franchises.  I was not previously aware that the LA Football Club (for which Christian Ramirez stars) is an entirely different entity from the LA Galaxy.  I guess if any market can sustain two MLS franchises, it would be one such as the City of Angels.  Of the two clubs, I am much more familiar with the latter, thanks to David Beckham and this snippet from "I Love You, Man:"

You learn something new everyday, right?

My favorite card of the bunch is probably Bradley Wright-Phillips, mostly just because I am a big fan of Red Bull... the energy drinks, not the football club.  Speaking of which, it throws me off how much corporate sponsorship has intertwined itself with their sport, with companies slapping their names on the front of team uniform kits and, heck, even straight up naming a team after a product.  I don't know how I feel about that, but I guess MLS doesn't have the deep pockets that the NFL does and has to make money where they can.

I like simple design, with the white borders that are sorely missed from Topps Flagship products and the prominent use of team colors and logos.  Honestly, this is a layout that I wouldn't have mind seeing used for baseball's Flagship.  Although, the Topps logo in the upper right hand corner is unusually large... I guess they have to remind you who is being these cards since they are coming from a fair unusual source.

Oh, and I feel like I should show you how the backs of these cards look, as well:

Blank, cereal box cardboard.  Very low maintenance, as I imagine it would be disruptive to the manufacturing promise and damaging to the bottom line to produce cereal boxes with printing on both sides.

In the end, these soccer cards are fun, appealing to the eye and I'm left wondering why the old bubblegum company can't make something like this happen with their baseball division.  Granted, over the past few years, Topps has done a good job in expanding their horizons by partnering with other companies.  For instance, PKWY Socks, Utz Potato Chips, and New Era, among others, have gotten with Topps to release promotional sets in the recent past.  However, these products are always basically a reprint of the main Flagship cards with a different, branded stamp.  I mean, I appreciate them diversifying their portfolio, but this just appears lazy.

Where's the creativity and wonderment?  If Topps can get a little more imaginative with their soccer stuff, why can't they do something similar with their baseball products?  They did a really good job of creating a fun, original tie-in product with their Marketside Pizza cards from a few years back; however, since then, it's been just stamps and logos.  I tell ya, if Topps did this same promotion - heck, even with just this same design again - with panels of a baseball cards, instead of soccer, on the backs of Post Cereals, I would probably be eating Original Chips Ahoy! Breakfast Cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

In the meantime, my family just got home yesterday and have probably noticed that their pantry is much less filled than it was when they left.  I should probably start "kicking" around a good idea for an excuse!

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Don't Care How, I Want Robel Now

As sort of a epilogue to yesterday's summation of the Cubs' deadline moves, it's time that I show off a newly acquired card featuring a guy who got sent packing to make space for the new blood.  I might be a bit biased due to my love of the Chicago National League Ballclub, but I truly believe that the story behind this rookie middle infielder is one of the best highlights of baseball's 2019 season.  In a year filled with controversy, brawling, old school temper tantrums, juiced, Titleist-like balls, and "home run or strike out" offenses, this guy's comeback has served as a beacon of light and harbinger of hope for our favorite sport.  Even though the story has temporarily been bookmarked, his tale remains immensely inspirational and is a reminder that baseball is, first and foremost, fun at heart.

Okay, enough with the flowery language and hyperbole, let's get to the point.  If you haven't yet guessed, I - of course - am getting all verbose about the one and only, Robel Garcia:

Here's a quick summary, in case you haven't yet heard about his long and winding road to Wrigley Field.  Robel washed out of the Cleveland Indians system back in 2013, having never risen above A-ball in four minor league seasons.  Unable to find work in the affiliated ranks, or even the independent circuits for that matter, Robel took his talents elsewhere.  Elsewhere ended up being Italy, of all places, where he starred and slugged in Europe's premier baseball league and on the Italian national roster.  Back stateside with the Italians for an exhibition last fall, Robel's powerful bat caught the eye of Cubs scouts and earned a second chance.  Starting out in AA, the second baseman simply could not be contained, as he forced himself up to AAA and then to the Majors in just a matter of months.  

Honestly, it all sounds far too rich to be true - somewhere in Hollywood, right now, there had better be a guy banging out a screenplay based on Robel's journey.  It's that wild.

Anyway, upon his storybook call-up to the Show, I was disappointed to find out that Robel did not have much of a cardboard footprint.  After all, as a modest prospect who never found his footing stateside, it wasn't much of a surprise to discover that overpriced, minor league team sets were my only option to add Garcia to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Being the cheapskate that I am, I decided to bide my time... maybe he would stick around long enough to sneak into Update, maybe he would do something Topps Now worthy and get a true, blue Cubs card printed up in his honor.

Well, being a talented rookie in a major market, the moment he did something even kind of notable, you know that Topps was going to jam him into their ever-growing Now checklist:

On the fourth of July, Robel belted his first Major League home run in only his second contest.  Notable, sure - but, Now worthy?  Debatable, at best.  Interestingly enough (and arguably even more notable) the card makes no mention of the fact that Garcia came up only a double short of the cycle in his second appearance, but very first start.  Of course, flaws aside, I wasn't about to complain about the opportunity to add a sweet Garcia to my CATRC binder - just look at that star spangled arm sleeve!

I did have to wait though.  Although I did purchase the card almost immediately after orders went live, I went through the secondhand market and found a seller hawking a copy for $4.75, which is much more palatable than the ten bucks that they sell for through the old bubblegum company.  Like I said, I'm a cheapskate!  The only downside was that I had to wait for the cards to be printed and shipped by Topps, then wait some more for the middleman to receive my Robel, then wait even more for them to ship it out for the second leg of it's journey.  Yadda, yadda, yadda, it was nearly August by the time I found this treasure in my mailbox.  However, the "Italian Stallion" was definitely worth the wait.

The holographic back offers up a second picture of Robel, celebrating his maiden mash with his teammates in the dugout of Guaranteed Rate Field.  Yep, that's another interesting factoid surrounding this moment, that not only was it the rook's first homer, in his first start, and nearly part of a cycle, it came at the site of the Cubs' crosstown rivals.  Honestly, I love this photograph, but this space should have been used for a detailed write-up about the event, like most Topps Now singles include.

C'est la vie, at least Robel and his feel-good story has finally been inducted into my CATRC.

Sadly, the glass slipper cracked a bit - a little less than a month after Garcia's bombastic debut - as the Cubs retooled their roster during the trading deadline.  While he'd started out strong, Robel had been mired in a slump throughout the second half of July as the rest of the league gathered information on a guy who, at this time last year, was in la Repubblica Italiana.  Needing a spot on the 25-man roster for Nick Castellanos' big bat, Robel was optioned back to the minors, where he'll likely bide his time in Iowa until rosters expand come September.  I'm sure he took his demotion in stride, as a quick trip to the Pacific Coast League is much easier to arrange than uprooting one's life to move to Italy!

Our hero during his time with Italian national team - image courtesy of the Associated Press and the Athletic.

While we're on the topic of Now cards, which have been around for four years now, what are your opinions on the product?  Are they gimmicky cash grabs or cool ways to capture specific moments in baseball's immense history?  Did you think they were novel and fun at first but have since overstayed their welcome in the market?  I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment section below.  Personally, I'm glad they exist solely because they provide an avenue for a guy like Robel or a flash in the pan hero to appear on a Cubs card when they otherwise likely would not.

Anyway, here's hoping there's still more chapters to be written in Robel's riveting and slightly unbelievable comeback story.  In a year as weird as 2019 has been, his journey to Italy and back has helped keep my burning love of the game alive!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Dead Blog Period

Being in the throes of summer break, I've been largely unplugged from the blogosphere for the past few months.  Sure, there have been a few posts here and there, but no more than a handful in each 30-day period.  With the benefit of having two and a half months off in the middle of the year - thanks to my IT position at our local school district - you darn well better believe I'm spending as much time as possible enjoying the wonderfully warm weather.  Blogging has taken a back seat to barbecues, fireworks shows, vintage baseball games, and tubing down the DuPage River, among other outdoor activities.

Plus, the Cubs have been exceptionally frustrating over the past two months, playing just .500 ball during that time period due to their largely absent offense and shaky bullpen.  Thus, I haven't been paying as much attention to the club as I usually, ravenously do.  After all, they haven't been bringing us Chicagoans much joy this summer and Marie Kondo says to cut that out.

However, as yesterday's trade deadline came and went, baseball once again regained my attention.  The flurry of transactions that occurred in the final hour made fans across the country sit up and take notice as players were suddenly bouncing around the league like ping pong balls.  Puig became an Indian, Greinke became an Astro, Stroman became a Met, etc. - it was almost impossible to keep up!  My beloved Cubbies were no exception either (although they did make us sit and sweat for a little bit) making several moves in the lead up to this year's final deadline.

I must admit, with the trades that they made over the past few days, I think the Cubs have successfully pulled me back in... and not just because school starts back up in a couple of weeks.  I think that Theo and Co. did an excellent job of retooling their flawed roster on the fly and within the confines of an (artificially) strained budget.  Let's review:

While one can easily make the case that the Cubs actually started their deadline dealing with the Craig Kimbrel signing back in June, I already banged out a whole post about that transaction.  Thus, let's start with the first bit of player movement made in the immediate lead up to baseball's line in the sand.

On an afternoon where I was busy chasing a steam locomotive around the the Chicago suburbs, the Cubs went out and picked a lefty off of the scrap heap.  Derek Holland had been designated for assignment by the Giants a few days previous and Theo saw an opportunity to grab a LOOGY out of the bargain bin.  Having flamed out as a starter due to his complete inability to put away righties (.291/.382/.640 in 2019), the southpaw is still absolutely lethal against same-handed opponents (.188/.278/.200).   Courtesy of his previous DFA, the Cubs were able to secure Derek's services for relative peanuts, costing just modest "cash considerations."

Provided he never sees another righty again, this shrewd move could pay dividends as part of restructuring a leaky bullpen.  Hopefully the Cubs can rehab Holland's career, much like the Union Pacific did that Big Boy!

Speaking of retooling the bullpen, on the day before the final deadline, the Cubbies pulled the trigger on another reliever trade, swapping AA hurler, Thomas Hatch, to the Blue Jays in exchange for David Phelps.  Mr. Phelps is a former Yankee prospect who has had success as a late inning reliever since transitioning to the bullpen with the Marlins in 2016.  In his previous 159 2/3 innings at the MLB level, David has posted an impressive 2.82 ERA with 10.9 K/9 against 4.0 BB/9.  Unfortunately, the dreaded Tommy John Surgery has stunted his career somewhat, as he missed all of 2018 after going under the knife.

Phelps signed with the Jays on a "make good," incentive-laden pact this past offseason and he pitched well enough for the rebuilding club to swap him for a modest prospect in Hatch (the Cubs' third-rounder in 2016).  Although, Thomas has struggled in his second trip through the AA level; so, unsurprisingly, Phelps' set-up man credentials loom far more important to the success of the Major League club.

On the other hand, what was surprising to me was just how many Phelps' cards I had in my trade stacks.  Honestly, non-closing bullpen arms rarely get any cardboard love... how did I end up with so many pasteboards of a random reliever?  I guess that's the benefit of being a former Yankee blue-chipper.

And now we've reached Deadline Day.  In the morning hours, the Cubs once again plunged into the scrapheap and came up with a salvageable piece.  Like Holland, Tony Kemp had also been recently designated for assignment by his former club and thus came with little expense.  In exchange for the diminutive (5'6") utility man, the Cubs traded third-string catcher, Martin Maldonado, back to Houston.  Maldonado had only been acquired a few weeks prior, in a knee-jerk trade to replace the briefly injured Willson Contreras and the rid the roster of the dissatisfied, dead-weight of Mike Montgomery, but the elite pitch-framer's services were an unnecessary luxury once Contreras came back healthy.

Meanwhile, Tony Kemp plugs a gap in the middle infield - with the sluggish performance of Addison Russell having been (thankfully) demoted to Iowa - and brings with him a disciplined bat, something the strikeout-prone Cubs offense could use:

All in all, not a bad way to reshuffle the bench.  Although, the Cubs offensive woes seemed to indicate that a bigger bat was needed to jump-start the lately listless lineup.  Right up to the 4 o'clock deadline that afternoon, it seemed as though that need would go unfulfilled.  That is, until just a few minutes after the bell:

According to a sourced report that I've since lost, the Cubs and Tigers supposedly completed their long-rumoured Nick Castellanos swap just forty seconds before the hard Deadline.  Talk about going all the way to the wire!

I must admit, my opinion on the team's deadline dealings went from slightly unsatisfactory to joyful upon the reports of Nick's acquisition.  While the bench pieces and bullpen arms were nice, the need for a big bat was far to great to ignore and Nick seemed like the perfect fit.  The outfielder can take over right field at Wrigley, shifting Jason Heyward to center and Albert Almora back to the bench where he belongs.  Castellanos' .273/.328/.462 slash should provide a boost to the offense, especially when facing southpaw hurlers, when it inflates to .347/.415/.611.  for some reason, soft-tossing lefties have absolutely stymied the Cubs in 2019, so Nick checks a couple of big boxes for the team!

In the end, Nick's rental (he's set to become a free agent) ended up costing the Cubs a pair of pitching prospects in Paul Richan and Alex Lange, but that's the cost of doing business. Honestly, I was more concerned about adding a Castellanos card to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection because apparently I just don't pull Tiger cards.  This Opening Day card from 2016 was somehow my only Castellanos single, despite his being one of the most notable pieces of the Motor City lineup in this decade.

To conclude, shortly after news of the Castellanos trade dropped, the Cubs' last major move was leaked.  The struggling Carl Edwards, Jr. was shipped to San Diego in exchange for lefty reliever, Brad Wieck.  On one hand, it's a damn shame to see the live-armed Edwards shipped off, another piece of the 2016 World Series core.  On the other, Edwards was in dire need of a change of scenery, as 2019 and most of 2018 was a disaster for the "Stringbean Slinger."  In short, I'm sad to see him go but I understand why the move was necessary.

Grabbing yet another arm for the bullpen was probably a good idea, considering the inherent volatile nature of relief corps.  Brad Wieck was optioned to AAA Iowa upon the completion of the trade, though the front office has indicated the he'll likely be up with the Big League club in September.  Unfortunately, he's never appeared in a mainstream baseball card product and only has team-issued, minor league singles to his name.  At least I have a month before I officially need to add Brad to the CATRC!

With that, you can see that Wrigley Roster Jenga missed out on a lot of action of the past week or so.  Four new names will be added to my CATRC binder and one further player will likely be added in a few weeks time.  Now, with that missed coverage out of the way, I can move on to the off-the-wall cardboard acquisitions I've made in the last few days.  Let's just say that they've come from some unusual sources and I cannot wait to share.

Are you happy with your favorite team's trade deadline moves (or lack thereof)?  Personally, I give my beloved Cubbies a solid B+ and they've successfully roped me back in on the back's of Castellanos, Kemp, Phelps, and Holland.  Please sound off in the comment section below!