This year’s list of MLB prospects is mind-blowing.
Big-time names like Franco, Rodriguez, Rutschman and Torkelson have eye-popping talent. But there is just as much ability at the top of the list as there is 100-plus names deep.
“They seem to get stronger and stronger,” said prospect guru and Onyx Authenticated, Inc. President Lance Fischer. “The classes or the prospects in the lower levels — this year being no different, although COVID kind of threw everything for a curve with last year being basically absent from really the development stage for the guys themselves and to the teams, being able to track and seeing how these guys would do or what their future holds. This year’s going to be very unique in that sense of we’re all kind of basing talent from 2019 and really not 2020. So, we’re hedging our bets a little bit that in the past year these guys have stayed in shape, they’ve stayed active, they’ve stayed engaged and so forth.”
Yes, the pandemic left a lot of top prospects essentially without a place to compete on an everyday basis during the 2020 season.
“I do think teams are, especially with their better prospects, treating 2020 like it was a continuing year of development,” MLB Pipeline/MLB.com senior writer Jim Callis said. “Even though it wasn’t a normal year, Franco hasn’t played above High-A, but I don’t think that means the Rays are going to say, ‘OK, that means he’s going to go to Double-A.’ I think he goes to Triple-A. He’s not that far from the big leagues.”
There is so much excitement for this year’s prospect class.
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There are three distinct things that jump out to Callis when he looks at the top-100 list he and his colleagues at MLB.com put together. No. 1, eight of the top nine and 11 of the top 15 guys on the list are position players.
“It’s not like we look at it like, oh, the pitchers are riskier. I think there is a good crop of hitters and a lot of these guys are all-around players,” Callis said. “But I think the Mariners have in numbers 4 and 5 on our list in Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez — it’s an organization with two of the top five prospects and it’s going to be fun comparing those guys. They’ll play alongside each other in the outfield for a number of years to come. We go back and forth which guy we think is better, and I don’t think there’s an obviously answer there. Then the fact that the Tigers have five of the top 25 guys. They’ve got Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, two of the best bats in baseball, and three of the top pitching prospects in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. So, I think the Tigers, they’ve struggled in recent years, but you can see some hopes of the future. It’s going to be kind of fun to watch those guys.”
The clear-cut No. 1 prospect in both Fischer and Callis’ minds is Tampa Bay Rays phenom Wander Franco. The young shortstop, who just turned 20 on March 1, climbed up the list from No. 14 in 2018 to No. 1 the following year. He just continues to amaze, hitting .351 and .327 in his first two seasons in professional baseball.
“He’s one of the best young hitters to come along in a long time,” Callis said. “He’s going to hit for some power; he can run a little bit, too. Some questions where he winds up defensively, because the Rays have a lot of shortstops.”
Ever since his 2019 Bowman Chrome cards were released, Franco cards have been extremely high. He has a number of autographed rookies on eBay selling for north of $25,000. In late February, a Franco 2019 Bowman Chrome Prospects autograph orange numbered to 25 and graded BGS 9.5 was listed for $49,950. To buy a regular base card from that release in a PSA 10 are selling for around $400.
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Two years ago, leading up the season, Fischer talked to Sports Collectors Digest about a young power hitter. He was a top-150 at the point, but Fischer was extremely high on him. That was player Rodriguez. He’s No. 2 in Fischer’s top 100 list and No. 5 by MLB.com.
“I’ve been a fan of his since a lot of people didn’t know who the heck he was,” Fischer said.
The Mariners’ outfielder’s top rookie card is his 2019 Bowman Chrome. His top autographed rookies are going upwards of $25,000 on eBay. His base autographed rookie from Bowman Chrome went from selling for $250 in August 2019 to $2,000 in February 2021.
Former No. 1 picks attracting attention
Two players who Callis is most interested in tracking this season are the last two No. 1 overall draft picks: Adley Rutschman (to the Baltimore Orioles in 2019) and Spencer Torkelson (Detroit Tigers in 2020).
Rutschman, a smooth hitter, is the second-best prospect on MLB.com’s list.
“It’s a rare combination of catching tools,” Callis said. “It’s like Mark Teixeira-type bat. He’s a switch hitter with Gold Glove-caliber defense. Just look what he did in college.
“I think he’s the most gifted catching prospect I’ve seen at that stage in his career in probably the 30 years I’ve been doing this,” Callis said. “I think he’s got a chance to be exceptional.”
Prospectors didn’t get to see Torkelson play at the pro level last season because of the pandemic, but they are in for a real treat this year. The 21-year-old third baseman has all the tools and is ranked No. 3 by MLB.com.
“Talking to evaluators, he’s probably the best all-around offensive player to come out of the draft in maybe two decades,” Callis said. “The power’s what jumps out the most. He’s got amazing power, but it’s not just brute strength. This guy’s a very accomplished hitter. He can use the whole field. He works counts. He doesn’t chase. He draws a bunch of walks. I think this guy’s going to get to the big leagues in a hurry.”
Fischer really likes Torkelson, too. It’s pretty impressive Torkelson can go from playing at Arizona State to getting drafted to moving into the No. 3 slot in the top 100, all without playing a single pro game.
“To go from college to the No. 3 prospect in baseball without that high-level wood bat experience is a big jump, but it says a lot about his talent,” said Fischer, who believes Torkelson has a shot to be a September callup this season. “He’s going to be a good one, too. I have no question about it. I think a lot of people know that he’s got the opportunity to really make a name for himself, and I think he will. The power’s legit, the hit tool is there. I don’t see him having a hard time adjusting with a wood bat and the pitching he’s going to see. He played in the Pac-10, which is usually pretty competitive.”
Another name making huge waves this year is Jasson Dominguez, who was the No. 1 player in the 2019 international class.
The New York Yankees outfielder, who just turned 18 in early February, hasn’t played any pro ball, yet he is ranked No. 32 by MLB.com.
“He’s for real,” said Fischer, who believes Dominguez will climb to No. 1 in a year or two. “I know there’s a ton of hype around him. He’s a Yankee, so that kind of multiples with the amount of hype behind a prospect like that. He’s for real. The talent is there. I think some people were kind of concerned about his weight. But he stays engaged – and it sounds like he is – he’s got a really good agency and agent behind him. He’s got a great head on his shoulders. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. His mental approach is incredible. He’s special. He’s going to be someone special. He’s going to be up there with and the same talent level as Wander Franco, Ronald Acuna and Fernando Tatis.”
Callis has yet to see Dominguez play live, but he’s heard rave reviews from scouts. Last year, the Yankees didn’t bring Dominguez to camp at all because he hadn’t made his pro debut. Also, the Yankees were just one of two MLB teams not to run an instructional league program.
Callis has a gut feeling Dominguez will start the season in low-A ball.
“I cannot remember a guy being hyped like him before playing in a pro game,” Callis said. “He’s got to be the most hyped international prospect of all time. I keep writing this, but he gets compared to guys, his athleticism is so crazy and his tools, and he gets compared to guys like Bo Jackson and Mickey Mantle and Mike Trout. So, the hype around him is almost ridiculous.
“A guy who’s kind of similar and has played and was great in his debut in 2019 is Marco Luciano. We could be looking at a 40-homer shortstop here. He might move off the position, but I think he’s gotten better at shortstop. His bat speed and raw power are just crazy, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him.”
Dominguez cards are begging crazy-high prices right now. Some of his numbered 2020 Bowman Chrome autographed cards graded BGS 9.5 are listed on eBay for upwards of $40,000.
Another top-10 prospect to keep an eye on is Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. The son of former big-leaguer Charlie, Callis calls Hayes the best defensive third baseman in the minors the last three to four years. Hayes played 24 games with the Pirates as season ago and hit five home runs. He’d never hit more than 10 in a season in the minors.
“I don’t think he’s going to keep slugging .682 like he did last year, but I think you do feel better that when you felt like this was a gifted hitter with raw power and he was going to figure out that part of his game, they may be figuring it out,” Callis said.
Fischer on the other hand isn’t as high on Hayes.
“Not sure if I’m 100% bought in with hit tool, but I think the defense, the speed is definitely there,” Fischer said. “I probably wouldn’t rank him in the top 10. I’d probably keep him between 25 and 50 is kind of where I think he falls, just because I’m not a believer in the hit tools for Ke’Bryan.”
Who in MLB.com’s top 20 list could jump to the majors and make an impact this season?
“I think we’re going to see most of the top 20 guys in the big leagues this year, just because there weren’t as many debuts last year, there weren’t as many graduations,” Callis said. “Just in terms of prime rookies of the year candidates, guys I could see making the opening-day rosters. Hayes is going to make an opening-day roster. I would think Nate Pearson could make the Blue Jays’ roster; Casey Mize for the Tigers, Christian Pache for the Braves. I think Dylan Carlson along with Hayes, one of the favorites for National League Rookie of the Year. Sixto Sánchez and Ian Anderson should be back in the big leagues, Luis Patiño after the Blake Snell trade. The other guys in the top 20, I’d say most of them are guys who could be up by mid-season. I think it’s going to be an exciting year. I think we’re going to see a lot of the best prospects in baseball play in the big leagues this year.”
A player who is flying under the radar a little bit is Cincinnati Reds shortstop Rece Hinds.
Fischer is also high on 2020 first-round pick, Tyler Soderstrom. The Oakland A’s catcher just missed being in the top-100 list, but he’s only 19.
“He’s hungry and he can hit,” Fischer said. “I think the mix of that is to do really well for him. As long as he’s not overly aggressive at the plate, but I think he’s going to be special. I really like his attitude, his approach and his hit tools are really good.”
A couple international players high on Fischer’s list are centerfielder Erick Pena (signed in 2019 by the Kansas City Royals) and shortstop Cristian Hernandez (signed in the 2020 class by the Chicago Cubs).
“The kid is really engaged, a lot of talent,” said Fischer about Hernandez. “A lot of people call him ‘Baby A-Rod.’ If he fills out a little bit more, the power definitely be there. He has the hit tools for sure.”
A couple players hovering around the middle of the top 100 that Callis has his eye on are a couple young hitters, including Boston Red Sox first baseman Triston Casas. He comes in at No. 44 on the list.
“He’s one of the best power prospects in baseball and he’s got a lot of hitting aptitude, and then Jordan Groshans with the Blue Jays, who I think can hit for average and power,” Callis said. “He probably ends up being a third baseman in the long run instead of a shortstop, but I think those are two guys who could be on the rise.”
Pirates pitcher Quinn Priester, ranked No. 52, has been turning some heads.
“You don’t want to look too much into instructional league, but we didn’t get to see guys develop last year and instructional league was the one place where scouts from other teams could see guys live,” Callis said. “I’ve had a number of guys tell me how good Quinn Priester looked in instructional league. One guy with a different organization thought Priester had the chance to be the best pitching prospect in baseball a year from now.”
Card hunting for 2021 prospects
With the unbelievable spike in the hobby during the pandemic, prospecting has gotten even bigger in the last year. Collectors are trying to get their hands on the next biggest thing.
Kendall Loyd, who owns Orlando Sports Cards South, has had some big pulls in his store since early 2020.
A customer got a Franco Flawless patch numbered to 5. Loyd paid almost $300 for it and quickly sold it for $400.
“That’s a lot of money for a non-licensed autographed patch, but it was pretty sick,” Loyd said.
Loyd’s shop also had a Torkelson Bowman auto red refractor /5 pulled, which sold for $10,000. A Dominguez Sapphire /10 was also pack fresh.
Loyd has witnessed a lot of new collectors come onto the scene since the pandemic struck. Some guys have come into his store looking to spend some cash without knowing what they’re getting into.
Loyd had a customer not waste any time and drop about $1,000 his first time in the store.
“The next day he’s back in, he spends like $500 more,” Loyd said. “Then he comes back in, he’s like, ‘Oh, man. I think I overshot it. I need to sell some of this.’ I said, ‘What happened? You pulled some good cards. Yeah, I didn’t really realize what I was doing. I spent $5,000 in 10 days.’ I said, ‘I noticed that. I didn’t know if you had a good job. I don’t know you well enough to say yes or no. When I get to know you, then I’ll give you advice.’ My advice is, ‘Hey, hey. Slow down, don’t get burned out.’ That’s the excitement’s in this, where they’re just out of control.”
Onyx, which specializes in high-quality prospects cards, is licensed through the MLBPA. Fischer and his company have always done well selling cards with its low print run, and it has gotten even better since the pandemic started. Collectors can’t get their hands on licensed products, so they are turning to companies such as Onyx.
Fischer is thrilled to be giving collectors their fix, but he doesn’t want his company to be part of the reason the hobby dies again like it did in the 1990s.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the industry,” Fischer said. “There’s a lot of people in there not just for the prospecting piece of it and the collecting piece of it. The number of investors that have come into the hobby now – you hear about a lot of people from Wall Street and these fund managers and all this other stuff now that are getting into this. It’s going to be really interesting. One thing that hopefully us manufacturers don’t do is oversaturate the market and create a crash ourselves. That’s one thing we’ve got to be cognizant of.”