Category Archives: Product Spotlights

Product Spotlight: 2014 Donruss

A little too much like an old classic

When 2014 Donruss was announced, it looked like it could be the missing piece in the Panini lineup.  After all, while Panini has had some success in high end (2012 National Treasures), shiny stuff (2012/2013 Prizm), prospects (various Elite Extra Edition releases and 2013 Prizm Perennial Draft Picks), and specialty retro (2013 Pinnacle and Hometown Heroes), they have no real base product to speak of.  With an ever-rotating list of products (National Treasures was demoted to an insert set in 2013 America’s Pastime), there’s nothing to really define Panini as a brand.  If you were collecting in the ’80s, you probably associate the Panini name with stickers and not cardboard.  It was only fitting then that Panini should launch their first true base product under the Donruss name, a throwback to a simpler time when it was possible to produce licensed baseball card products in competition with Topps.

For me, the Donruss name brings back memories of the 1986 and 1989 designs, Diamond Kings, Rated Rookies, and puzzles that never quite fit together right.  There are a lot of classic elements in the history of Donruss but also plenty of bad decisions and disappointments.  Unfortunately, 2014 Donruss takes a few of the former and mixes in a lot of the latter, creating a product that is a little too faithful to the brand’s lineage.

Card Design

Panini dressed up their first attempt at a base Donruss product like a bride.  There’s something old (the pre-1986 Donruss logo), something new (quality cardstock and gloss coating), something borrowed (the baseballs in the strips of color on either side of the photo), and something blue (the blue cardback style used in 1988 and 1991 Series 1).  Overall, it’s not a bad look, a more refined take on the brand’s design that incorporates elements from across the first decade of Donruss.

At least, that’s how it looks until you consider the photographs.  The basic design itself is a bit boring, but that makes sense when you consider that the player photograph is what should draw your attention.  You can forgive a border that is devoid of any bright color if it contrasts well with a colorful photo.  And that’s where the lack of a license from MLB Properties kicks in.  Without the rights to use team names or logos, Panini removed all trace of team identity from the photos they used, right down to eliminating the color orange from nearly every Mets card.  The Rated Rookies cards of Travis d’Arnaud and Wilmer Flores use photos from the Las Vegas 51s and the Granderson is obviously a Yankees photo, but everything else looks like it started out as a proper Mets uniform.  The end result is a lot of blue and white, just like the border.  They would have been better off converting the photos to black and white.

Mets Selection

You can’t really fault Panini for their choices here.  Two rookies, two hot young pitchers, one captain, the biggest offseason acquisition, and a future Hall of Famer.  That’s a good core group right there.  And with only 200 cards in the set (30 of which are Diamond Kings with duplicate players), there’s no room for anything more.  Only 200 cards?  That’s the same size as Topps Archives (not counting SPs; Archives is actually a much larger set when you account for SPs), a product that also mixes current players with retired stars.  Shouldn’t this be more in line with base Topps or even Topps Heritage?  200 cards just isn’t enough for this type of product.  Two 330-card series would make more sense, especially if Series 2 could be released in late September with All-Star SPs taking the place of the Diamond Kings.  Panini did use the insert sets to expand the total number of players (Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, Johan Santana, Ike Davis, Andrew Brown, and supposedly Jeurys Familia all appear in the inserts).

Subsets

With only 200 cards to work with, there wasn’t much room for variety in the subsets.  Panini went with the classics here, starting the set with 30 Diamond Kings and 15 Rated Rookies, each subset inserted at a rate of one every 6 packs.  I’m not sure the different level of scarcity between the two subsets makes much sense (each Rated Rookie should fall just over 4 per case on average, compared to just over 2 per case for Diamond Kings), but I guess Panini wanted to pack in the rookies.  In terms of design though, these just fall flat.  The Rated Rookies have all of the same problems as the base cards while the Diamond Kings are just too bland, though the 1984 Diamond King design is faithfully recreated.  Instead of art cards, the Diamond Kings in 2014 Donruss have a pair of photoshopped photographs mimicking the typical Diamond King layout.  The large sections of solid color in the border plus photographs with all detail wiped away equals a design that is simply lacking.

Retro Inserts

The strongest category by far is the array of inserts found in 2014 Donruss.  We’ll start though with the ones that don’t factor into the Mets team set.  Team MVPs and Power Plus both borrow from the 1989 design and do a good job of remaining distinct despite the common inspiration.  Something about the Team MVPs just looks wrong to me though, probably how the MVP logo is at the bottom over the photo instead of at the top under the photo.  With hat/helmet logos cropped out, the old design just wouldn’t work.  One other criticism is that, like the Diamond Kings subset, the Team MVPs insert set doesn’t have a card from every team.  The set is the right size (30 cards), but some teams are featured multiple times with a mix of active and retired players.

The Mets do have representation in four of the retro-inspired insert sets and the results are impressive.  The best design by far in 2014 Donruss is the one used for the No-No’s [sic] inserts.  The combination of elements from the 1986, 1989, and 1991 Donruss designs is almost seamless and the logo, while new, looks like it could be from that period.  I’m actually a bit disappointed that this wasn’t the base design, I would have liked to have gotten a few more cards like this Santana (instead, only 10 cards were produced in this design).  You barely notice the horribly mangled photograph.

The formula was a bit simpler for The Rookies with the 1988 colors in a new design with a Diamond Kings nameplate and the Panini RC logo.  On top of that, Travis d’Arnaud’s photo is the only one with prominent orange (David Wright’s base card with a visible orange undershirt is the only other card showing a Met wearing orange).

And then we have The Elite Series and Elite Dominators, some nice metallic inserts based on the early ’90s inserts and numbered to match (a more reasonable 999 instead of the original 10,000).  It’s strange to see these falling 2 or 3 per box when the original versions were so hard to pull.  Print runs sure have changed…  Two different Elite insert sets is a bit much though, with the 50 total cards outnumbering the entire Elite print run from 1991-1994.  Another reason why a second series would have made sense.

Modern Inserts

Not all of the inserts in 2014 Donruss look like they came from earlier decades.  The Breakout Hitters/Pitchers and Hall Worthy inserts both feature a mix of matte and gloss textures on unique designs.  This style has previously appeared in Panini Cooperstown and connects the vintage Donruss elements with the current incarnation under Panini.

Parallels

And what modern baseball card product would be complete without serial numbered parallels?  2014 Donruss has four, though they only have two different designs.  The Press Proof parallels come in silver (numbered to 199) and gold (numbered to 99) varieties and feature the standard base card design with a “PRESS PROOF” stamp and a foil-stamped serial number.  The Stat Line parallels are printed on metallic foil and come in season (silver stamp) and career (gold stamp) varieties, though the numbering is based only on the stat shown (with a maximum print run of 400).  It would have been nice if Panini had limited the minimum print run as well; Stat Line print runs can be as low as three.  Some additional variety would also have been nice; a die-cut version or some different color foils would have really helped to set the different parallels apart.

Box Toppers

David Wright base Diamond King shown as reference for scale

I don’t know why more products don’t throw a box topper card in every box.  Back in the day, boxes used to have cards printed on the bottom as a small bonus for buying so much at one time.  Box bonuses eventually shifted to the inside of the box with improved quality and decreased frequency.  Today, box toppers tend to be extremely limited with box prices starting at $60 for most products.  Every box of 2014 Donruss includes one of 25 jumbo 5″ x 7″ Diamond King cards as a box topper, with autographed versions of 24 of them randomly inserted at an unspecified rate (while not serial numbered, these are most likely limited to 50 copies or fewer).  Some of the box topper Diamond Kings don’t appear in the base set and vice versa, which seems a bit odd.  Otherwise, this was a great touch and a welcome callback to the jumbo Diamond Kings from decades past.

Donruss Signatures

Donruss was one of the first products to feature autograph cards (Upper Deck beat them by just a few months) and the Donruss/Leaf Signature products in the late ’90s are still some of the best autograph products ever produced.  A strong autograph set was therefore a must for 2014 Donruss.  Sadly, the Donruss Signatures name is the only element that draws from the Donruss legacy.  The card design looks like a reject from 2013 Panini America’s Pastime and the checklist is mostly prospects and young players, the type who sign autograph stickers by the thousand (all of the big names are on low-numbered autograph inserts that fall one every two cases on average).  Four Mets are featured in the 50-card set, but Andrew Brown’s first certified autograph is the only one you are likely to find.  Zack Wheeler’s autograph appears to be a short print and no copies of the Jeurys Familia or Wilmer Flores autographs have surfaced so far.

Recollection Autographs

The original Recollection Collection autographs, which ran from 2002 to 2005 in various Donruss and Leaf products, set the standard for buyback autographs.  Featuring diverse checklists of hundreds of players who had appeared on a Donruss or Leaf card of some sort from 1981 to the early 2000s, these cards featured a foil logo stamp, embossed authenticity guarantee, and foil-stamped serial number on the back.  In recent years though, Leaf, now under separate ownership, has had the buyback autograph market to themselves.  2014 Donruss brings back the Recollection name with buyback autographs focused on rookie cards and featuring an embossed logo and handwritten serial number.  Ron Darling, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry are the Mets featured here.  A total of just over 1,000 Recollection Autograph cards were produced, making them fall less than one per case on average.  It’s a shame Panini couldn’t have gotten a few hundred more so they could make this a guaranteed case hit.

Game Gear

Four Mets are also on the 50-card Game Gear checklist, but this time all four are fairly common.  As 14,000 Phillies pointed out, the Game Gear design borrows from the 1980 What If design from 2002 Donruss Originals.  The Game Gear name itself is a remnant from Pacific, which last produced baseball cards just before Donruss returned under Playoff in 2001.  The material provided an additional throwback; most of the jersey swatches in the Ike Davis, Dillon Gee, and Jon Niese cards are from their 1993 throwback jerseys.  Like the Game Gear inserts in 2001 Private Stock, cards with jersey swatches also have a patch parallel (numbered to 25 in this case).

Wrapper Redemption

It has nothing to do with the Mets, but Donruss announced a wrapper redemption good for a three-card pack of Rated Rookies that will be cards 201-203 in the set.  While the names have not been announced, the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka is believed to be among the three.  The wrappers just might be the most valuable thing inside boxes of 2014 Donruss.

Case Break

So far, 2014 Donruss looks like a mild success.  The designs are, for the most part, strong with a good mix of elements from across three decades of Donruss products.  The minuscule set and some truly awful photographs take it down a notch and the lack of a license from MLB Properties hurts its collectibility.  The biggest problem though is figuring out just what kind of product 2014 Donruss is trying to be.  It doesn’t have the checklist to be a base product, it’s not heavy on prospects, the cards aren’t all that premium, and the price isn’t comparable to a discount product.  The guarantee of two autographs and one relic (though two per box is common) per box brings it to a price point comparable to base Topps or a product like Heritage or Archives, but the quality and value of these “hits” is not on par with those Topps releases.  So just what does that make 2014 Donruss?

A disappointment, especially if you open it by the case.  Doing some math puts the print run of 2014 Donruss at around 1,400 cases, give or take.  Spread across those 1,400 cases are 765 premium autographs (plus autographed box toppers), 1018 Recollection autographs, and 1089 patch cards.  The Stat Line parallels add about another 6,000 cards numbered to less than 99.  That gives you a best case scenario of getting one good autograph, a patch card, and four parallels numbered to around 50 in a 16-box case with no other serial numbered autograph or memorabilia cards.  For a $1,000 case, that’s not a whole lot of value.  With perfect collation, the rest of the case should give you two full 200-card sets, 14 155-card base sets, 4 Power Plus insert sets, 2 The Rookies insert sets, 2 Hall Worthy insert sets, 1 No-No insert set, most of the Breakout Hitters and Breakout Pitchers insert sets, half of the Team MVPs insert set, more than half each of the Elite Series, Elite Dominators, Donruss Signatures, and box topper sets, and less than half of the Game Gear insert set, plus plenty of parallels and extra Rated Rookies.

But you’re not going to get perfect collation, even inside a sealed case where collation shouldn’t be a problem.  I took a chance on a team break of a case of 2014 Donruss (done by Brent Williams) knowing that it wasn’t spectacular but expecting a minimum of duplicates of the more limited inserts.  With four Mets each on the autograph and memorabilia checklists, at least there would be a few interesting cards to look forward to.  What I wasn’t expecting was for the collation to be another aspect of the older Donruss sets that was faithfully reproduced in 2014 Donruss.

The Donruss products of the late ’80s and early ’90s were produced in tremendous quantities, but building a set was no easy matter.  This was due to collation so spectacularly bad that you could pull dozens of one card before finding just one of another.  Getting the same card twice in the same pack was not all that unusual.  This problem was hardly unique to Donruss, but Donruss was a prime example of collation that could be infuriating at times.

These days, smaller print runs and more controlled packouts help to keep collation more reasonable, especially within a single sealed quantity like a box or a case.  After all, duplicates in small amounts of a product are largely worthless to most collectors and reduce the value in the product.  With ever-narrowing profit margins, any cheap way to increase value is worthwhile.  So what happened with 2014 Donruss?

The results of this case break were not pretty.  Of the 32 autographs, only 23 were different (one appeared three times).  The Game Gear inserts weren’t much better: 16 different out of 21 base versions.  11 of the 16 box toppers were different with one triplicate among them.  Results for other limited inserts were similar.  By the time the break was halfway through, duplicates had already appeared in all of the major insert sets with checklists 50% or more greater than the number of cards that would be found in a case.

For the Mets, the results were mixed.  The Hall Worthy and The Rookies inserts delivered two each as expected.  The number of Breakout Pitchers inserts was two, as expected, but both were Dillon Gee.  No Elite Series or Elite Dominators inserts turned up, but only two of the 50 are Mets and only 35 (30 different) were in the case.  Only one of the four Mets Game Gear cards were in the case, as were two copies of the Andrew Brown autograph.  One of the two box toppers was a Met, which is reasonable for the checklist size (2 Mets out of 25 cards, 11 different of the 16 in the case).  No-No’s (What’s with that apostrophe, Panini?) massively overdelivered, 6 actual vs. 1.6 expected.  Diamond Kings also came out ahead (3 actual vs. 2.2 expected) while the expectation of 4.3 of each Rated Rookie was accurate for Wilmer Flores (5 in the case) and way off for Travis d’Arnaud (only 1 with bad surface damage in the entire case).  Base cards fell 13 to 15 of each, a bit under the 16+ that would be expected with good collation (each box should have more than 155 base cards, so this indicates bad box-level collation).  Three parallels rounded out the team lot, though none of them had print runs lower than 200.  Overall, it was a slight disappointment with some very significant over and under deliveries that should be extremely rare outliers in a properly managed packout.  Unfortunately, there is no indication of any care taken to manage this product’s packout.

And as for the big hits in the case, the only cards numbered to less than 99 were three Stat Line parallels and an Edwin Encarnacion patch card, with no autographs beyond the base Donruss Signatures cards.  That’s poor even for this product’s checklist, which isn’t that great to begin with.  On the plus side, this means that there will be some cases with multiple limited autographs.  There will also be some cases with no cards worth more than about $10.  For a $1,000 case, that’s just not acceptable.

The Verdict

File this one under “Missed Opportunity.”  The concept was a great one and parts of the execution were outstanding.  On the other hand, other parts ranged from puzzling to awful.  Why wasn’t there a Diamond King and Team MVP for every team (not to mention only 10 No-No’s [sic])?  Why were all of the photographs photoshopped to oblivion?  Where are the Jeurys Familia and Wilmer Flores autographs?  Who thought a 155-card base set made any sort of sense?  And how did the collation go so horribly wrong?  Panini clearly put a lot of effort into bringing together three decades of an iconic brand into one product, why did they stop short of taking the steps necessary to make it a success?

I just can’t recommend buying large quantities of this product to anyone.  A few packs or even a box may make sense for some fun nostalgia, but a case has nothing to satisfy anyone.  Set collectors will be out of luck unless they buy several cases.  Hit collectors won’t see any sort of return.  Team collectors won’t have much to chase with this tiny checklist.  And anyone who appreciates good photography will want to stay far away from this one.  2014 Donruss missed the mark and in the process delivered the modern equivalent of its 1991 predecessor.  This was not the product collectors wanted or the product collectors needed, just a mindless diversion until something better comes along.

Product Spotlight: 2013 Bowman Sterling

Getting it right the second time around

To appreciate 2013 Bowman Sterling, you need to look back at 2012 Bowman Sterling.  Which I didn’t write a review for.  That means you’ll have to get through a quick 2012 review before we get to the good stuff.  Sorry.

2012 Bowman Sterling – Underachieving to the Max

If you can’t see the autographs, try tilting your screen

It was hard to get too excited about 2012 Bowman Sterling.  Now without any memorabilia cards, this was an autograph-only release with a token base set.  You would expect some high-quality autographs from a set like this.  And there they are in that image above.  Really.  Look closely.  Trust me, just look in those big dark spots.  See those slightly darker areas?  Those are autographs.  Yeah, these are some awful cards.  Terrible design, terrible colors, and players nobody really cared about by December of 2012.  Rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis was the default Mets Rookie Card autograph in 2012, so he only had a few dozen more interesting autographs on the market at the time.  Gavin Cecchini and Kevin Plawecki had their first autographs the month before in 2012 Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects, but those were really the only ones anyone needed.  Unless there are some sweet refractor autos in here.

Taste the rainbow. Or maybe just something yellow.

Nope, just these.  The most common refractor varieties are shown above: base refractors numbered to 199, gold refractors numbered to 50, and black refractors numbered to 25.  So much color and variety.  Bonus points if you can tell the difference between base and black refractors without looking at the serial numbers.  With autographs like this, the Matt Harvey base Rookie Card may be the most interesting card in 2012 Bowman Sterling; Harvey’s only other Topps Rookie Cards are in 2012 Topps Update.

2013 Bowman Sterling – Second Attempt

And that brings us to 2013.  On the surface, nothing had changed from 2012.  Sterling was once again a premium autograph-only release with a token base set, essentially a chromium version of Bowman Inception with a bigger autograph checklist (plus the aforementioned base set).  One look at the cards though will tell you that this is nothing like 2012 Bowman Sterling.

Autographs

This time around, the autograph cards in Sterling are a more visually pleasing portrait orientation with large design elements and a signature background that makes the ink more visible.  It’s not going to compete with Bowman Chrome for the most desirable autograph card style, but it stands well enough on its own.  On top of that, the player selection is greatly improved from 2012.  The two Mets with autographs in Bowman Draft, Dominic Smith and Andrew Church, are here as expected, plus late-season replacement Rookie Card signer Zack Wheeler (on stickers unfortunately).  That alone is a modest upgrade over 2012, but then we add the first autographs from L.J. Mazzilli (son of Mets favorite Lee Mazzilli) and the first Mets autographs from Noah Syndergaard (the other big chip in the R.A. Dickey trade along with Travis d’Arnaud, who had his first Mets autographs in 2013 Bowman Inception).  Sterling has something unique to offer instead of being filled with leftovers.

And that’s not even considering the refractor autographs.  Black refractors are out, replaced with blue refractors at the 25 level.  Gold stayed the same, only at the fifth level down instead of the second.  Base refractor numbering went down from 199 to 150 and three new levels were added: green at 125, ruby at 99, and orange at 75.  The ruby coloring wasn’t quite as distinctive as it could have been, but this was a huge improvement over 2012.

Base Cards

And we haven’t even gotten to the base cards yet.  Inserted at a rate of just one per pack (compared to three per pack for autographs), these aren’t easy to get.  The three top names from the autograph list show up here: Wheeler, Syndergaard, and Smith.

As for the refractors, the base cards don’t get the three new refractor levels and go straight from base refractors (numbered to 199) to gold refractors (numbered to 50).  The lack of common variations and poor scanning results make these the weakest cards in Sterling.

Inserts

We’re not done yet.  Next up are a pair of The Duel inserts featuring Dominic Smith and Matt Harvey.  Topping it off is a sapphire reprint of David Wright’s Bowman rookie card.  Wright joins Jose Reyes as only the second Mets player in this set, which ran throughout all of the Bowman products in 2013.  All that’s left are the autograph inserts, most of which are on stickers and all of which are numbered to 50 or less.

The Verdict

As one of the final products of the year, Bowman Sterling is an easy one to overlook.  2012 Bowman Sterling faded into the background, but 2013 Bowman Sterling proved that Topps still had something new to offer after more than two dozen products.  Let’s hope that attitude carries over into 2014.

Head to Head: Fan Favorites Autographs vs. Hometown Signatures

Topps and Panini showcase minor stars in major ways

It’s common for different companies to attempt to produce the same product with varying levels of success.  When it happens with baseball cards, we’ll put them Head to Head to find out which one comes out on top and what room there is for improvement.

Last year, Topps revived its Archives brand as a celebration of past card designs and fan favorite players you may have forgotten.  This year, Panini countered with Hometown Heroes.  The alliterative title alone made it clear that Panini was aiming squarely at the target market for Archives (which itself was known as All-Time Fan Favorites in a past incarnation).  The Hometown Signatures insert set is a clear counterpart to Archives’ Fan Favorites Autographs insert set, a collection of on-card autographs from dozens of the game’s lesser stars.  Ideally, I would compare the complete offerings of both products, but the Hometown Heroes base set is so unappealing that I haven’t gone anywhere near it.  Even the secondary autograph insert sets are fairly boring (and all use sticker autographs, though Archives has gone in that direction as well), so there really isn’t anything worth looking at except for the Hometown Signatures set.  And even that may be a bit of a stretch.

Card Design

Luckily, we have plenty of overlap in the Fan Favorites Autographs and Hometown Signatures checklists.  Ron Darling is the lone Met common to both sets, so let’s start there.  On the Fan Favorites Autographs side, Topps uses classic card designs with new photos and a faded section at the bottom for the signature.  Hometown Signatures on the other hand combines geometric shapes in light blue and light green to make, well, that.  A chartreuse section at the bottom serves as the signature location.  Since Panini lacks a license from MLB Properties, no team names or logos are used, just a “New York” team identifier.  Only the 2013 Hometown Heroes logo adds any distinctiveness to the overwhelming blandness of the design.  Both feature the newer form of Darling’s signature, which you can get in person on a card of your choice at the Queens Baseball Convention, January 18, 2014 at McFadden’s Citi Field (subtle plug).

This isn’t a showdown so much as it’s a one-sided smackdown.  Panini starts out at a disadvantage without team names and logos, but a generic design with the worst possible color combination isn’t helping.  On top of that, the blue ink on green background turns the signature blue-black, keeping the main focus of the card from standing out.  I haven’t even gotten into how the use of vintage cardboard stock with an unspectacular modern design (I would say “vintage-inspired” if I could figure out the inspiration) makes everything look like a cheap knock-off…  The 1986 Topps design isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser, but the execution on modern card stock is flawless.  Combine that with the nostalgia of 1986 and you have a clear winner to go along with Panini’s clear loser.

Player Selection

Well, that wasn’t very exciting.  Maybe a look at the checklists can even things out.  The 2013 Hometown Signatures set weighs in at 93 cards, far more than the 58 cards in the 2013 Fan Favorites Autographs set.  While many of the names on the Hometown Signatures list are familiar from the 2012 and 2013 Fan Favorites Autographs sets, there are a few notable exceptions.  Among those are the first Pat Tabler autographs I’ve seen and the first Garry Templeton autographs since 2001.  In all, 14 former Mets are included, including four as Mets (well, “New York” at least): Darling plus Lenny Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry, and Lee Mazzilli.

Yes, Lee Mazzilli has his first autograph from a company other than Upper Deck and his first autograph card with a player photograph since 2007 in the Hometown Signatures set.  It may not be pretty, but it’s something.  So what does the Fan Favorites Autographs set have to offer?

Looks like Fan Favorites Autographs takes this one too.  Mookie Wilson, Jesse Orosco, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Kevin McReynolds, Howard Johnson, Gregg Jefferies, and Keith Miller are all shown as Mets.  Miller’s card is his first autograph card and his first card of any kind since 1995.  Another seven former Mets are shown with other teams, including Ray Knight, Bret Saberhagen, Hubie Brooks, and four others in common with Hometown Signatures.  The Fan Favorites Autographs set just has more to offer.

Verdict

There’s nothing more to say, Fan Favorites Autographs wins this one easily.  When going up against an autograph set with history dating back to 2001 and a formula that has been refined nearly to perfection, you need to bring your A game.  Panini used a childish design to appeal to childhood memories and it just didn’t work.

Product Spotlight: 2013 Topps Finest

From innovative to irrelevant in 20 years

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 20 years since the introduction of the super premium baseball card. Just four years after Upper Deck started the move toward quality over quantity, the hobby was on its second iteration of premium product escalation. Base Upper Deck was now practically low-end in it’s final year before making another premium jump to keep up with competition from Leaf, Stadium Club, and Ultra. Now all of these products seem like a distant memory. 1993′s addition of the super premium tier promised to make everything that came before obsolete through the use of new technology. Fleer’s Flair used the thickest, glossiest cardboard stock on the market. Upper Deck’s SP featured die-cut cards and expanded use of UD’s trademark hologram technology. And Topps introduced the baseball world to its chromium technology with 1993 Finest.

While Topps debuted chromium in its football products (a recurring theme in the industry), Finest was the first baseball product to feature it. That alone was a big draw, but it was the refractors that got everyone’s attention. These were the days when a refractor was a refractor with no colored variants, x-fractors, atomic refractors, or superfractors. These cards were bright and shiny with a multicolored metallic finish that nothing else could match. And a price that many of us could not afford. But they sure were pretty. By the end of the decade, chromium was all over Topps products, making Finest just one of many using the technology. In 2013, Finest was a mere chrome afterthought in a crowded late-season release schedule.

Card Design

How far Finest has fallen… Scans don’t do base chrome cards justice, but there’s just nothing exciting about this design. The design theme seems to be sheet metal with holes drilled in it. The color from the early years of Finest is long gone, saved for the refractor parallels. No cardback could jazz up this lifeless design, but this one doesn’t even try. On its own merits, this design falls short. Released just two weeks after 2013 Topps Chrome and 2013 Bowman Chrome and less than a month after 2013 Panini Prizm and 2013 Leaf Metal, Finest was caught in a logjam of chrome products. With a small checklist and a high price, a bland design is just inexcusable.

Mets Selection

Finest’s 100-card checklist eliminates any need for borderline stars or lesser players. Topps Chrome and Bowman Chrome had to contend with the question of Ike Davis or Lucas Duda, but there was no way either would have a chance here. If nothing else, Finest weeds out all of the filler and focuses on the game’s biggest stars. For the Mets, that means David Wright and Matt Harvey. More than a third of the product is dedicated to rookies, so Zack Wheeler is a given here. Jeurys Familia rounds out the Mets quartet because he’s in everything.

Refractors

2013 Finest includes the usual refractor parallels: four styles (refractor, x-fractor, atomic, and superfractor) and four colors (green, orange, gold, and red). With eight refractor parallels in total, Finest is one of the most restrained chrome products in the Topps lineup. Eight may seem like a lot, but it is downright reasonable compared to the 13 refractors in 2013 Topps Chrome, 14 refractors in 2013 Bowman Chrome, and even more refractor styles coming in 2013 Bowman Draft. Without a border on the base design, the color is instead applied inside the holes in the background. This diminishes the color’s visual effect a bit, but it’s not like there was much visual appeal to work with in the first place.

Inserts

2013 Finest recognized its history with inserts based on the 1993 design. Matt Harvey is featured in the base 1993 style and David Wright is in the All-Star version. Both also have refractor parallels numbered to 25 and 10, respectively. Matt Harvey also has a die-cut Prodigies refractor insert (with a different picture even). Clearly, the Finest brand is capable of delivering a compelling product, just not in modern base cards it would seem.

Autographs

Last year, human autograph factory Kirk Nieuwenhuis was the Mets representative in Finest’s rookie autographs. This year, it was more of the same with Jeurys Familia signing anything put in front of him. Versions include all of the same refractor styles from the base refractors with a slight twist; instead of applying the color to the holes, the entire background except for the holes is colored. With lots of color at the top and the area underneath the signature faded out (as Topps has started doing in most products this year) at the bottom, these look a lot better than the base refractors.

Autographed Relics

Zack Wheeler is a bit of an upgrade from last year’s Jordany Valdespin in the autographed jumbo relic inserts. These cards feature sticker autographs and jersey swatches sized to match, all in the same refractor variants as the base cards and autographs. The material in these cards is a mix of pieces of Wheeler’s 2012 Futures Game jersey (light blue and white mesh swatches) and pieces of a home white Mets jersey (Wheeler’s first MLB-worn memorabilia) with patch swatches in the low-numbered versions. One downside to the use of stickers is that they force Wheeler to shrink his signature to fit. Wheeler’s unconstrained autographs look great but I’m not sold on the miniature version.

Conclusion

It’s clear that Finest has fallen into a rut after 20 years. Once the industry leader in innovation, it has now been reduced to a simple formula repeated year after year. Topps has added more and more to all of its other chromium products, leaving Finest out of date and out of touch. The small checklist (half of the size of the original 1993 set) and a release date right after two chrome products featuring the same players and better card designs aren’t doing Finest any favors.

The one big selling point of 2013 Finest is its historical connection. The problem here though is that it doesn’t look like the brand has gone anywhere in 20 years. Looking at the 1993 and 2013 designs side by side, there’s not much of a difference. The new design adds team names and player positions but loses color and design concept. This just isn’t a premium product for today’s market. Topps needs to overhaul Finest in 2014 or let it go the way of Stadium Club.

Product Spotlight: 2013 Topps Pro Debut

d’Aaud!

The first of the year’s minor league releases, Pro Debut gives us the rare chance to see logos from farm teams on the familiar base Topps design.  Brandon Nimmo with the Brooklyn Cyclones, Wilmer Flores with the Binghamton Mets, Travis d’Arnaud with the, um, Buffalo Bisons?

Card Design

So many things wrong with this card…

Pro Debut uses the same design we’ve seen in Topps Series 1 and Topps Series 2, which I really should have gotten around to reviewing by now.  So here it is in all its glory, the standard white border with a bit of color and a small spot of design by the name and team logo.  While the design won’t exactly turn any heads, the choice of team might.  Travis d’Arnaud never played for the Buffalo Bisons and the Bisons never used this logo as an affiliate of the New York Mets.  So what the heck is going on here?  Given how forthcoming Topps has been lately regarding its numerous problems, we may never know how this oddity came to be.  So I guess that leaves it to me to come up with a few crackpot theories to explain its origin.

Lead Times

The simplest way to explain errors like this are the long lead times in sports card production.  Sometimes you just have to get the photos out the door way ahead of release and hope for the best.  It is possible that the photo deadline fell somewhere between November 20, 2012, when the new Bisons logo was unveiled, and December 17, 2013, when Travis d’Arnaud was traded to the Mets.  But for a product released on June 26, 2013?  Six months is an eternity in this business, so this one doesn’t make much sense.

Risk Management

A somewhat more likely scenario involves the lead times not for the photography, but for the manufactured logo patches.  These would be needed in advance of card printing, so it makes sense that they would be ordered before the photography has been finalized.  Based on the delays Topps apparently encountered in receiving the logo patches for 2012 Topps Heritage Minor League Edition (last-minute redemption cards were issued in their place), a solid risk management strategy would have been to order the next batch well in advance, potentially in the one-month window during which it looked like d’Arnaud would be playing for the Bisons.  It wouldn’t do to have the player shown with a different team and it would be confusing to show a player with two different teams in the same product, so there’s a decent amount of logic here.  And the logo on the patch isn’t the 2013 Bisons logo but the 2012 Bisons logo in 2013 colors, indicating that the ordering deadline was too soon after November 20 to do a full logo redesign.  But with the error apparent so far in advance, wouldn’t ordering an updated patch have been a feasible option?  We’re talking about less than 100 tiny pieces of cloth here.

Work of Art

Enough with logic, maybe they were so impressed with their artwork that they didn’t want to let it go to waste.  After decades of uniform manipulation, they finally got one right, then the guy gets traded!  Screw it, we’re keeping it the way it is.  This one makes no sense, which is why it is my favorite option.

Token Bison

Maybe we’re overthinking this.  Travis d’Arnaud is the only player from the Buffalo Bisons in 2013 Pro Debut (two mascots in the Mascot Patch insert set are the only other Bisons).  It’s possible that the Bisons needed to have at least one player in the product and d’Arnaud was it.  Without a replacement, Topps could have found themselves in a tough spot.  A quick fix of showing d’Arnaud with the Bisons and calling it a Mets affiliate doesn’t make much sense but technically checks off the box.

Miscommunication

Or maybe this was just a colossal screw-up resulting from the many people responsible for different parts of the card not all working from the same notes.  Imagine if you’re doing the final layout with the deadline fast approaching and, on card number 200, you get a picture showing a player with one team and a description showing him with a different MLB team’s affiliate.  The clock is ticking, you still have 20 more cards to finish off, and you’re not being paid enough to care.  In reality, that’s how cards like this are made, so this scenario wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Player Selection

2013 Topps Pro Debut: Now with 25% pro debuts!

As for the rest of the set, there’s a mix of players from Kingsport to Las Vegas.  It’s mostly first-round draft picks and top prospects here, so we’ve seen most of these guys before.  Many, many times.  You’ll note that Gavin Ceccini and Luis Mateo are the only ones with the Pro Debut medallion, because they’re the only ones who made their pro debut last year.  That’s a bit disappointing for a product called “Pro Debut.”  Brandon Nimmo and Michael Fulmer are in Pro Debut for the first time, but as first-round draft picks, they’ve been around in Topps products before.  Zack Wheeler, Wilmer Flores, Noah Syndergaard, and Travis d’Arnaud have all been in Pro Debut two or three times before this (and, along with Fulmer, had insert cards in 2013 Bowman), so you would think they would have aged out of this product by now to make room for younger guys like Gabriel Ynoa, Kevin Plawecki, Darin Gorski, or Cory Mazzoni.  At least Luis Mateo (the one in the Mets system, not to be confused with the other Luis Mateo) gets his first professional cards here, though I would have preferred Ynoa.

Gold Parallel

As usual, every base card has a gold parallel numbered to 50.  Also as usual, I have all of them except the Wheeler.  While most of these are available for less than $5 shipped, the Wheeler sells for $15-20.  Or at least it would if anyone selling one would ask less than $25.  So we’re at a stalemate, which will end with anyone who wants to buy one not caring anymore before anyone considering selling one accepts reality.  And so the only people who will own them will be people who don’t really want them.  And that’s this crazy hobby in a nutshell.

Futures Fabric

I think I own about half of this jersey by now…

Following the usual script, 2013 Pro Debut has more pieces of 2012 Futures Game jerseys first cut up in some of last years late releases.  Wilmer Flores is the only Met here, with jersey swatches (plus gold parallels numbered to 50 and printing plates numbered to 1) and jumbo logo patches (numbered to 5).  Zack Wheeler is conspicuously absent, indicating that his material may be needed in another product later this year (Finest maybe?).

Logo Patches

Yes, that’s a 51s player in a 2013 Bisons jersey next to the 2012 Bisons logo in 2013 Bisons colors

Like last year, we have an assortment of logo patches from Mets minor league teams, including Wilmer Flores with the Binghamton Mets, Zack Wheeler with the Las Vegas 51s, and, um, yeah.  Eh, two out of three ain’t bad.

Mascots

You don’t want to think about this #SandysMess

Everyone loves mascots, so after the first-ever mascot autographs in 2013 Topps Opening Day, the minor league mascots got some recognition in a manufactured patch insert set.  The only Mets affiliate mascot in the bunch is Sandy the Seagull from the Brooklyn Cyclones (two Bisons mascots appear as they did in the Bisons’ Mets days, with the Blue Jays Bisons logo, so, um, I don’t know how to count that).

Conclusion

As with most of this year’s Topps releases, the value per box is fairly negligible, with the manufactured patches being worth more than most of the autographs and memorabilia cards (which are largely worthless).  Most of the cards here could be obtained fairly inexpensively, making this a good source of prospect cards, though most of the prospects here are no stranger to Topps products.  Notable cards are Luis Mateo’s first Topps card and Noah Syndergaard’s first base card as a Met.  And the Travis d’Arnaud abomination.  Yes, this product is most notable for an inexplicable freak of a card.  That’s the minor leagues for you.

Product Spotlight: 2012 Panini Elite Extra Edition

Sharper cuts, fewer stickers, and a double dose of Koch

Still slightly chronologically challenged, Elite Extra Edition’s 2012 product is out with everything you would expect.  If you’re familiar with last year’s product, you already know what’s in here.  Lots of prospect autographs, die-cut parallels, and no team names or logos (except for the Under Armor logo for Cecchini).  That’s the price you pay when you go up against the Topps monopoly.

Autographs

The autographs look just like the base cards, so let’s just skip the base cards and go straight to the autos. The base autographs are split into two subsets: the first 100 are Franchise Futures sticker autographs and the last 100 are Prospects on-card autographs.  Aside from the type of autograph, the only real difference between the two subsets is that the Prospects cards tend to feature earlier round draft picks.  Numbering on these varies between 299 and 795 copies.

Mets featured in the Franchse Futures subset include Matt Koch (3rd round), Branden Kaupe (4th round), and Logan Taylor (11th round).

Not shown: Kevin Plawecki (redemption)

Mets featured in the Prospects subset include Gavin Cecchini (1st round), Kevin Plawecki (1st round supplemental, redemption cards only), Matt Reynolds (2nd round), and, again, Matt Koch (3rd round).  That’s right, Matt Koch has both sticker and on-card autographs in this product for some reason.  I guess Panini just really likes Koch.  Redemptions for Plawecki is a bit disappointing, especially considering that Topps featured his autographs in Bowman Draft and Bowman Sterling (they did however resort to redemptions for Matt Reynolds, while Panini has his autos here on-card, the first of his pro career).

Parallels

Once again, Panini has ink color and die-cut parallels of the base autographs.  Ink colors include red (#d/25) and green (#d/10).  Autographs are on stickers for Franchise Futures and are on-card for Prospects.

Not Shown: Aspirations, Black Status

Die-cuts include Aspirations (#d/100), Blue Status (#d/50), Green Status (#d/25), Orange Status (#d/10), Gold Status (#d/5), and Black Status (#d/1).  This year’s die-cuts are more interesting than last year’s and the on-card autos continue through all of the Prospects parallels (unlike last year, when stickers were used for some).  All Franchise Futures parallels continue to be sticker autos.

Inserts

Two Mets prospects are featured on insert autographs, both on stickers.  Matt Reynolds is featured in the Elite Series (#d/199), while Logan Verrett returns as the only member of the 2011 draft class with an autograph in this product in the Back to the Future insert set (#d/48).

Verdict

It’s hard to find much improvement here over last year’s EEE.  The die-cut pattern is a bit more dramatic and there are a lot more on-card autographs, but the rest of the product is more of the same.  It certainly gets points for featuring six members of the Mets’ 2012 draft class, particularly with on-card in-product autographs from Matt Reynolds and the first autographs from Matt Koch, Branden Kaupe, and Logan Taylor.  However, the first round picks were starting to get boring when Bowman Sterling was released in December, so the big names weren’t much of a draw by the time January came around.  Add in the lack of an MLB license and it’s hard to see this as anything but second-rate.  I love this product for its supply of cheap prospect autographs, but it doesn’t seem to aspire to be anything more.