In 2003 the Cleveland Indians offered an interesting promotion. Early arriving fans received a limited-edition collectible card series featuring the club’s up-and-coming young talent. To properly punctuate their flex, the title card featured the sentence, “These cards could be very valuable.” I re-discovered these cards while cleaning out my childhood bedroom. Sixteen years have passed since these cards were printed which feels like enough time to determine whether I’ve uncovered a valuable find.
Jhonny Peralta: Three-time All-Star (in Detroit and St. Louis), played until 2017, top ten WAR position player in 2005. Peralta had the unenviable task of following Indians legend Omar Vizquel at shortstop. He excelled in 2005 but could not sustain that excellence in subsequent years; the Tribe traded him in 2010. He hit .067/.067/.267 in the 2012 World Series for the Tigers.
Brandon Phillips: 4-time Gold Glove, 3-time All-Star, Silver Slugger, twice earned MVP votes, still playing. The back of the card features a quote from then-Atlanta GM John Schuerholz, “We love Brandon Phillips and think he’s going to be a star middle infielder.” Schuerholz was right, but Phillips success largely came in Cincinnati starting in 2006.
Earl Snyder: 19 career games, 12 hits, 22 strikeouts. Snyder appeared in only 18 games for the Tribe in 2002, an injury wiped out his entire 2003 season, he appeared in one contest for the Red Sox in 2004, and then retired.
Ben Broussard: 87 career homers, 466 career strikeouts, played until 2008. Broussard played a capable first base for the Indians from parts of 2002 to 2006 before being traded to Seattle. Ben never developed as the Indians hoped though Cleveland did net Shin-Soo Choo in the deal so that’s something.
Overall value: 5.0/10
Josh Bard: Played until 2011, in 2007 led NL with 121 stolen bases allowed. Bard appeared in only 156 games for Cleveland over four seasons. He bounced around a few other clubs after that, never appearing in more than 118 games in a season.
Victor Martinez: 5-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger, Received MVP votes six times and finished second in 2014, still playing. After winning the 2002 Minor League Player of the Year award, V-Mart settled in as the club’s starting catcher in 2004 and played his heart out every day. He led the team to the 2007 division title before the front office sent him to Boston at the 2009 trade deadline. Martinez then signed a massive contract with Detroit where he continues to play.
Overall value: 6.0/10
Alex Escobar: 125 career games, 13 career homers, 52 RBI. Escobar was one of the prizes acquired in 2001’s Robbie Alomar deal with the Mets. Sadly, injuries wiped out his 2002 and 2005 seasons. He cameoed in Washington before hanging up the spikes in 2006 at the age of 27.
Karim Garcia: Played parts of 3 seasons in Cleveland, hit 26 homers, 75 RBI, played until 2004. Garcia made a splash in July 2002 when Cleveland acquired him from the Yankees. In 51 games the 26-year-old slugged 16 homers and hit .297. Alas, it was not meant to be, and the Yankees reacquired him in 2003 and he was out of baseball by the following season.
Ryan Church: 56 homers and 267 RBI in seven seasons, played until 2010. Ryan Church never suited up for the Indians. In January 2004 the Tribe dealt him and Maicer Izturis to the Montreal Expos for Scott Stewart. Church managed a fine platoon career, but the Indians did not miss out on a power revelation.
Pull quote from the back of this card: “Truth be told, this wave of talent easily could prove to be more valuable than the one that turned the Indians from wimps into bullies in the early ‘90s.” – Matthew Olkin, USA Today Baseball Weekly. Yeah…not so much.
Overall value: 1.0/10
Coco Crisp: 309 career stolen bases, caught stealing 79 times, led AL with 49 SB in 2011, played until 2016. Crisp delighted Cleveland fans with his colorful name and dynamic style of play when he debuted in 2002. He capably handled left field until the club sent him to Boston in January 2006. Crisp and the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series before bouncing around the American League and ultimately returning to the Indians in 2016.
Milton Bradley: 88 career stolen bases, caught stealing 40 times, 2008 All-Star, played until 2011. Bradley enjoyed a fine season with the Tribe in 2003 featuring a .923 OPS. Right before the 2004 season began Cleveland sent him to the Dodgers for Franklin Gutierrez. He enjoyed a fine if unremarkable career.
Overall value: 4.0/10
C.C. Sabathia: 2007 Cy Young Award, 6-time All-Star, 2009 World Series Champion, still playing. Sabathia is far and away the biggest name on this card. The big lefty won 106 games with a 3.83 ERA for the Tribe in 7.5 seasons and cemented his legend in the Bronx. This season will be CC’s last in the Bigs and it’s reasonable to figure that a Cooperstown plaque is in this future.
Billy Traber: 12-14 career mark, one-hit the Yankees in 2003, played until 2009. Billy Traber showed promise in 2003 as a lively arm, but injuries wiped out his 2004 and 2005 seasons. He managed to play for the Nationals, Yankees, and Red Sox before saying so long in 2009.
Cliff Lee: 2008 Cy Young Award, 2008 ERA title, 4-time All-Star, finished top-5 in Cy Young voting in 2005 and 2011, played until 2014. Lee served as a terrific lefty for the Tribe from 2002-2007, but in 2008 he enjoyed a career year: 22-3 record, 2.54 ERA, 4 complete games, 170 strikeouts. Naturally, the Indians traded him the following year. Lee reached the World Series with Philadelphia in 2009 (lost to the Yankees) and with Texas in 2010 (lost to the Giants). The card back quotes ESPN’s Peter Gammons, “According to one NL club’s AA Eastern League scout, Lee is the best pitching prospect in the league.” That’s a smart scout.
Brian Tallet: 16-25 career record, 4.79 ERA, played until 2011. Tallet pitched in only 35.2 innings for the Tribe before being dealt to Toronto for Bubbie Buzachero. Tallet relieved for the Blue Jays for a few seasons before wrapping up in 2011.
Overall value: 9.0/10
Lastly, the deck contains a lovely picture of Jacobs Field before the new scoreboard went in before a large red key adorned Key Tower and before The Corner or right field renovations. It’s a nice photo.
Total deck value: 5.0/10
These cards underscore one of the most fundamental truths of baseball: We just don’t know. No one perfectly predicts which prospects will emerge as major hardware winners and which will flame out after a cup of coffee. Sometimes poor injury luck is the culprit. Others cannot find their spot in a big-league roster. Even today pundits and writers are penning declarative prospect appraisals which will look either foolish or brilliant in a few years. Expectations are regularly usurped in Major League Baseball. With so much unknowable, all we can do is enjoy The Show and maybe pick up some baseball cards along the way. They might be valuable someday.