By Greg Bates
Every February, Baseball America releases its Top 100 MLB Prospects list.
It’s become a crib sheet – a bible, perhaps – to many card collectors and prospectors who are looking into the future to strike gold.
Last year, Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi topped the preseason list and didn’t disappoint in his rookie season. Slide down the list a few names and there was Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger at No. 7. The first baseman broke the NL rookie record for home runs in a season with 39. One glaring name that was nowhere to be found in the top 10, 25, 50 or 75 was New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. He landed at No. 90. Judge blasted – I mean blasted – a rookie-record 52 home runs in his breakout campaign.
“With Aaron Judge and that phenomenon last year, I think it definitely brought a lot of people back into the hobby that maybe had grown weary of it or had just lost interest in it over the previous few years or decades,” Dave & Adam’s Card World Product Manager Pat Blest said.
The prognosticators who compile the Top 100 list every year didn’t totally whiff on Judge, but he certainly wasn’t considered a “can’t-miss prospect” at the beginning of last season. It just goes to show that the lists aren’t Nostradamus-like predictions when it comes to future phenoms in America’s pastime.
But the success of Judge, Bellinger and Benintendi added to the excitement of the 2017 baseball season.
“It’s hard to look back 20 years, but if it wasn’t the best year ever, it was probably a top two or three ever that I remember for prospects and rookies,” said Kendall Loyd, owner of Orlando Sportscards in Orlando, Florida. “This year’s going to be tough to match that, but there’s still a lot of guys out there.”
As we enter the 2018 season, there are a few prospects who baseball experts are extremely sky-high on. In fact, they occupy the top two spots on Baseball America’s Top 100 list this preseason.
No. 1 is Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna.
“I think Acuna has a real, real opportunity to be that guy this year,” Onyx Authenticated President Lance Fischer said. “I think the hype around him is all legit. It’s not inflated. The kid’s got a lot of talent, good head on his shoulders.”
Barely 20 years old, Acuna was ranked No. 67 entering 2017. But that was before he took the minor leagues by storm. Acuna, an international free agent in 2014, hit .325 last season with 21 home runs and 82 RBI.
“He was a tiny, tiny blip on the prospecting radar, and then of course with the season he had starting in high A and finishing in AAA – being 19 years old is pretty incredible,” Fischer said, who had a signing with Acuna last year for his company.
Acuna made his rapid rise through the Braves’ farm system and was the Arizona Fall League MVP. Now, the five-tool youngster is on the brink of the big leagues.
“The only question with him is he may be one of those late April call-ups just to get that extra year of service time,” Blest said. “They may not rush him into the majors. But I would think the end of April if he continues to hit the way he’s shown the way he’s capable of then he’s going to find his way into the majors fairly quickly.”
Acuna is creating a lot of buzz around the Braves spring training facility. Loyd, whose card shop is 15 minutes from the Braves’ stadium in Kissimmee, has streams of prospectors coming in during spring training to look for his product.
“Acuna is the one everybody wants,” Loyd said. “So far during camp, he’s been a tough one to get autographs from.
“If he’s not No. 1, he’s No. 2 for the most desired guy to get right now.”
Acuna is also turning the heads of those associated with the game.
“I won’t say who, he’s kind of a quiet guy, but he’s a former major leaguer and he comes in here all the time and he knows Acuna,” Loyd said. “We were talking about prospects, and he goes, ‘Man, I never like saying can’t miss, because that’s a tough thing to say. But if there’s ever a can’t miss, it’s Acuna. He’s a can’t miss.’ This was like six months ago.”
Acuna has plenty of cards on the market with his first licensed cards coming in the 2016 Heritage release. His Bowman and Bowman Chrome from 2017 are also hot.
“Any of the guys that follow the prospects, in the course of 2017 obviously monitored what he was doing and that certainly helped out those card values and saw the jump in his prices,” Blest said.
Loyd had a couple Bowman Chrome autographs in his shop when Acuna started to catch fire last year, but those sold quickly.
“I can sell a $300 Acuna refractor faster than I can sell his $5 or $10 rookies,” Loyd said. “That’s just how it is.
“All the product that he’s in, everyone keeps cracking it. The 2017 Bowman Draft Jumbos went. I think I was charging about $130 and I think they’re close to $200 now.”
The No. 2 prospect on everyone’s list is Shohei Ohtani. The two-way player from Japan made waves this winter when he signed with the Los Angeles Angels.
“Around the office since last season, he’s kind of been a subject of talk for us looking forward to this year,” Blest said.
As a pitcher, Ohtani has a four-pitch repertoire and has clocked triple digits on the radar gun. As a hitter, he’s a potential 30 home run guy.
“It’s going to be exciting to see how he adapts to Major League Baseball hitters and pitchers and see what he can do,” Blest said.
Where Acuna has quite a bit of product out, Ohtani cards are just starting to surface. Topps Now was the first on the scene, and the recent Heritage release has his first base card and short-print autograph cards. Donruss Baseball also has Ohtani autos and memorabilia.
“I would think initially that auto is going to be pretty expensive, just because it’s going to be a tough pull,” Blest said. “I know we’ll have more auto content in Topps Chrome and Bowman for sure, but I don’t really know the specifics on print runs and how many copies will be on the market. I would think that first Heritage auto is going to be pretty sought-after.”
“He’s still really young and has a lot of upside to him,” Fischer said. “I hate to go with the consensus because I always kind of like being the one guy that kind of gives you someone who’s really not being looked at that closely. It’s really hard to stay away from Acuna and Ohtani.”
Not too far down the list at No. 4 is outfielder Eloy Jimenez. The Chicago White Sox acquired the phenom last year from its crosstown rivals.
“He might be the best prospect in a way of just average and power as a hitter,” Blest said. “I know I’ve heard some (Giancarlo) Stanton comparisons as far as his power grade. He could be someone who forces the issue. I think Chicago would like to be patient and wait another year for him, but he may force his way into their lineup with his ability alone.”
If there are three names for prospectors to remember it’s Acuna, Ohtani and Jimenez.
“I think those are three guys that are going to do really, really well,” Fischer said. “If I had to throw a fourth guy in there, probably Gleyber Torres will do well, too.”
The New York Yankees infielder missed half of last season with an injury and slightly slipped in the rankings to No. 6.
“That happens to any guy who gets injured the majority of the year,” Fischer said. “Unless the injury was career-threatening, the talent really doesn’t go away. With Gleyber, I think he’s got a great head on his shoulders. He’s focused and I think he’ll do really well.”
All indications are Torres is back at full strength and ready to make his push to be an everyday starter at second base.
“He’s another guy they might hold back a couple weeks because of the service time issue, but there’s really nothing standing in his way at second if he continues to show the bat that he’s got in spring training,” Blest said.
A pair of Toronto Blue Jays have made a steady climb in the past year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., went from No. 20 last year to No. 3 overall. Bo Bichette, 20, was unranked at this time a year ago and is now No. 8. The dynamic duo has great MLB bloodlines with both dads being strong players.
“It’s exciting when you see those familiar names to get you back interested in the hobby if you’ve lapsed over the years,” Blest said.
Guerrero Jr. is a power hitter like his dad, Vladimir Sr., who finished with 449 career home runs. The youngest Guerrero, who just turned 19 on March 16, had more walks than strikeouts last season in two levels of the minor leagues.
“He’s going to be a stud,” Fischer said. “I’ve heard from a lot of other prospects, especially the Dominicans that have played with him in the past and the pitchers are very impressed with his plate patience, his power. They all say he’s definitely going to be one to keep an eye on.”
“There’s a perfect example of a guy that just might force Toronto’s hand by the end of this year where you maybe see him get a call-up,” Blest said. “It’s exciting to think about what he can do for 2019. And Bichette may have had better numbers of Guerrero did last year.”
Bichette – whose dad, Dante, played 14 seasons in the pros – is hitting .372 in two minor league seasons.
Fischer, who spends spring training checking out prospects and lining up autograph deals for Onyx products, has an eye for spotting big-time talent who aren’t necessarily glaring in the top 100.
Fischer is high on Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, who missed part of last season with an injury. Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Mason Martin is another player who had a great first season in the minors.
“I can tell you right now he’s probably not on anybody’s radar unless you’re a Pirates fan,” said Fischer, who has signed Martin to his first autograph session. “This kid won the Gulf Coast League MVP last year, hit for average, hit the most home runs in the league in quite some time.”
Kevin Maitan, who was the No. 1 international free agent in 2016, is now with the Angels after the Atlanta Braves lost the top prospect amid MLB penalties. Fischer has heard Maitan draw comparisons to Miguel Cabrera.
Fischer also likes the potential of Minnesota Twins shortstop Wander Javier, who is No. 95 in the Top 100 list.
Another guy who is rapidly moving up the list is Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Sixto Sanchez. At No. 25, he has been compared to another Dominican Republic pitcher, Pedro Martinez.
“I think he’ll be a nice up-and-comer,” Fischer said.
Last year’s Yankees farm system was stacked, and it’s still a top-five group even with Judge and Clint Frazier now playing in the big leagues.
But three organizations Fischer really loves with its prospects selection are the Braves, White Sox and San Diego Padres.
“I think the number of players they have that have all-star potential, I think those three teams probably have the strongest systems right now for that,” Fischer said.
The Braves have eight prospects in the top 72 in baseball, including a slew of pitchers, namely Kyle Wright and Max Fried. The White Sox have five prospects in the top 100, including pitcher Michael Kopech at No. 11, and outfielder Luis Robert.
“They’ve done a lot of key moves to restock their system,” Blest said. “Look how far they’ve come in the last two years.”
The Padres have a slew of young talent, nabbing six of the top 66 spots. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. headlines the group as the No. 9-rated prospect. Second baseman Luis Urias comes in at No. 32.
“He’s another guy to keep your eye on,” said Fischer about Urias. “Nice hitter, isn’t going to probably hit for a lot of power, but has a great glove. Is going to hit for average.”
The Padres haven’t reached the playoffs since 2006, but their time might be right around the corner thanks to their loaded minor league system.
“If you were a Padres fan two years ago, you’re just like, ‘Ah, this team’s never going to do what they did in 1984 again,’” Fischer said. “And, there they are already. You can build that quickly. Same thing with the White Sox.”
Fischer has watched as more organizations have taken the approach of the Houston Astros for developing young talent and building depth. It’s a cheaper method and equated into a World Series title for the Astros after about five years of building.
“I think teams have seen what the Astros did last year and have to really take a serious look at that instead of going out and trying to get all these ultra-expensive free agents that the guys may not be motivated at that point anymore,” Fischer said. “But when you’re making tens of millions of dollars, the motivation may not always be there.”
As MLB teams build their farm systems up, prospectors will continue to stand by waiting for the next big thing. Last year’s success of young talent on the big stage created extra buzz around the sport.
“When you have a year like you did with Judge, everybody starts seeing what those card values are and start thinking that they need to know who the up-and-coming prospects are and get in on that kind of prospect market,” Blest said. “Aside from the monetary aspect, I think it just gets people excited, especially the young fans that can kind of latch onto these guys just before they’re making it to the majors, and that’s exciting for them.”
Blest has watched over the years as prospect-driven card products keep getting bigger.
“From an unopened product standpoint, the prices do tend to skyrocket pretty quickly,” Blest said. “So, if you don’t lock in early on some of these trading card products, you may miss out or you’re going to have to pay a pretty penny to get some of these products.”
Blest said Topps – especially Bowman Draft and Chrome – will once again have a nice prospect checklist from all of its products. Heritage is another Topps product that offers plenty of future stars.
“If you can lock in on a pre-sale early, do it, because that’s usually when you’re going to get your cheapest pricing in that pre-sale period before release,” Blest said. “If you’re waiting until Judge starts to hit those home runs last year, you’ve already waited too long for a lot of those products. And he wasn’t even driving them, it was everyone else in the products besides him.”
Loyd is always trying to familiarize himself with the young stars of the future. He’ll look at card prices of players and find who is putting up big numbers in order to know what his customers might be demanding. Loyd also talks to his customers and gets a gauge of what they are looking for.
“It’s pretty simple, football and basketball prospecting, you know absolutely within a year, maybe two years and if this guy hasn’t done something in two years, it’s over,” Loyd said. “It’s a 95 percent chance – there’s no one sneaking up three years, five years, seven years from now. Baseball is incredible, not only are there 100 times more players, but sometimes these guys can sit in the minors for three, four years, maybe because they haven’t developed yet and maybe sometimes there’s a guy blocking them at a certain position. Baseball is just awesome with the prospecting.”
Fischer believes this is the deepest pool of prospects he’s witnessed in quite some time.
“Just in the sense of the amount of talent, especially those guys that sit right now in the top 10,” Fischer said. “It just seems like this year and going into next year, there’s a lot of talent out there.
“What’s exciting is when these guys get called up in the next five years, we could see a lot of new, fresh, exciting talent in the major leagues.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.