Last year at this time, Wander Franco was all the rave for MLB prospectors.
The Tampa Bay Rays shortstop was the clearcut top-ranked prospect, and when he got called up to the big leagues in June, he didn’t disappoint.
Now that Franco has graduated from prospects lists, collectors have already shifted their attention to the next big thing.
This year’s prospects list is filled with eye-popping talent. But it’s the top three guys that are stealing all the headlines, and for justifiable reason.
“You’ve got some big names, kind of similar to last year’s guys, with Adley Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez and Bobby Witt Jr.,” said prospects guru and Onyx Authenticated, Inc. President Lance Fischer. “To me, those three really stand out and then you drop a little bit, I think, off from the talent level. I still like Spencer Torkelson. I think those top three, they’re definitely going to be difference makers when they get to the big leagues.”
MLB Pipeline/MLB.com senior writer Jim Callis really loves the top three prospects as well.
“I think it’s a really deep group at the top,” Callis said. “There aren’t too many years where you legitimately have three guys who would easily be the number one prospect in a lot of years. You could even stretch that a little bit past three maybe, if you wanted.”
Well, let’s stick with the top three right now, because they all seem to be primed for standout careers.
THE BIG THREE
In mid-March, MLB Pipeline released its updated Top 100 prospects list, and Witt was ranked No. 1. The Kansas City Royals shortstop, son of former MLB pitcher Bobby Witt, was the seventh-rated player at the beginning of 2021. The 21-year-old jumped to the top after a solid campaign in Double-A and Triple-A last year, when he combined for 33 home runs, 97 RBIs and a .290 average, .361 on-base percentage and .575 slugging percentage (.290/.361/.575).
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“He’s a potential 30-30 shortstop with just makeup and charisma off the charts,” Callis said. “He grew up around the game, and I think the transition is going to be really easy for him. … I’ve been covering this stuff for almost 34-35 years now and of all the shortstops that have come out of the draft in that time, the best tools of anybody was A-Rod. A-Rod’s probably the best draft prospect since I’ve covered it, and the second-best shortstop tools are Bobby Witt Jr. He’s that good.”
MLB Pipeline ranks Rutschman, a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, as its second-best prospect. An experienced 24-year-old, Rutschman put up 23 home runs, 75 RBI and .285/.397/.502 over two levels last season.
“Adley probably has the best catching tools to come out in the draft since I’ve covered it,” Callis said. “You’ve got a track record and you’ve got tools, and it’s offense and defense. Again, it’s great makeup. This will sound like hyperbole, but I’ve got a comp I keep going back to — when he was coming out of the draft, somebody compared him to Mark Teixeira, who was a Gold Glove catcher. That’s what you’re looking at potentially with Rutschman.”
No. 3 on MLB Pipeline’s list is Rodriguez, an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners. The 21-year-old had a phenomenal 2021 season. Between High-A and Double-A, Rodriguez was an on-base machine at .347/.441/.560. He had 13 home runs, 47 RBIs, 64 runs scored and stole 21 bases.
“You’ve got Julio Rodriguez, who didn’t come through the draft and probably has a higher offensive ceiling than either [Witt or Rutschman],” Callis said. “I think he’s a better pure hitter than Bobby Witt Jr. The power in those three games is comparable, but I’ll bet you Julio Rodriguez probably hits more home runs than they do, just because I think there’s a little more swing and miss with Bobby Witt Jr. and Rutschman’s a catcher and that’s going to take a toll on him a little bit physically.
“The negative, if you will, of Rodriguez compared to those guys is they both play premium positions and he’s more of a right fielder.”
Coming in at No. 4 in the rankings is Detroit Tigers first baseman/third baseman Spencer Torkelson. The top overall draft pick in the 2020 MLB Draft started the 2021 season in High-A and finished in Triple-A, which says a lot about his progress. The 22-year-old hit 30 home runs and drove in 91 runs. His breakdown is .267/.383/.552.
HOT ROOKIE CARDS
Card prices for these top four prospects have been through the roof for quite some time. All the guys have Bowman Chrome autographed rookies as their premiere rookie cards.
In late March, Witt’s highest-selling card was a 2020 Bowman Chrome Prospects Gold Refractor Autograph (/50, PSA 10) that went for $67,500 as a best offer on eBay. The card had a population of six. His base, non-autograph prospects card from that release in a PSA 10 was selling for more than $200.
Rutschman had a 2019 Bowman Chrome Draft Gold Refractor Autograph (/50, PSA 10, auto 10) go for $8,900.01 in an eBay auction. His base card from that release went upwards of $150.
Rodriguez’s 2019 Bowman Chrome Prospects Gold Shimmer Refractor Autograph (/50, BGS 9.5, auto 10) sold through an eBay auction for $8,050.
Torkelson had a 2020 Bowman Chrome Draft Gold Refractor Autograph (/50, PSA 9) go for $7,500 on an eBay Buy It Now. Keep in mind, that’s for a PSA 9.
“A lot of people are out there hedging their bets,” Fischer said. “Prospecting has grown into almost a stock market of itself where you’ve got a lot of money pouring in now into these guys and hedging that they’re going to be the next Mike Trout, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, whatever.
“There is so much information out there, there are so many ways to hype guys up with social media and their own Twitter feeds and ESPN and everything else that these players are getting more attention than ever before. With that, people are recognizing new faces and everyone wants the next Michael Jordan of baseball or next big name.”
Sports Collectors Digest put both Fischer and Callis on the spot, asking if they had to put their money into just one of the top prospects for the long run, which player’s cards would they choose.
“Julio Rodriguez — wouldn’t even hesitate,” Fischer said. “One, his opportunity in Seattle is unlike anybody. They haven’t had a big name up there since Ichiro, and not to take anything away from Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, but the one thing none of those three did for the city of Seattle was win a World Series, and I think the Mariners are really building something special. They’ve got some really good talent coming up, they’re a younger team, they’ve hit the free market a little bit to bring in some talent there, too.
“I think with Julio and the potential he has not only as a player and what he can do for the city of Seattle is going to be insane. Because of that, you’re going to see something really special. I’ve been a believer of him from early on, and I’ve only gotten stronger and stronger with him.”
When SCD interviewed Fischer in March 2019, he talked highly of Rodriguez when the then-18-year-old had yet to even crack the top-100 list.
“The kid has got an incredible head on his shoulders and he’s got a really good mix of things going for himself,” Fischer said.
When Callis was put on the spot about which prospect he would put his money into, he hedged his bet a little bit.
“I’ll give you two answers: ceiling and safest bet,” Callis said. “It’s tough, because it’s not like any of these guys are a secret, they’ve all been household names for a while. I do think the highest ceiling is Rutschman; you just don’t see catchers like this. He’s a switch-hitter who hits for average and a ton of power, really controls the strike zone, and he’s a Gold Glove defensive ability behind the plate. I think he’s got the highest ceiling of them all, so I would probably invest in him. I think he has the chance to be the best player in the long run.
“If I wanted safety, I think I would go with Julio Rodriguez, to be honest with you. If you’re nit-picking these guys, Bobby Witt Jr. swings and misses more than the other guys do — he’s a good hitter, but he’s not as good of a hitter as the other guys. Like I said, [with] Rutschman catching, you can get beat up behind the plate. There aren’t a lot of catchers who are productive deep into their 30s.
“If you were having me pick a guy who was most likely to get 3,000 hits or 500 or 600 home runs — and I’m not saying he’s definitely going to do that, because it sounds ridiculous right now — but I do think Julio Rodriguez is the safest bet to have a great career.”
BEST OF THE REST
Another Tigers player, outfielder Riley Greene, rounds out the top five on MLB Pipeline’s list. Just one pitcher, Oriole Grayson Rodriguez, and two more catchers, Blue Jay Gabriel Moreno and Met Francisco Alvarez, join Rutschman in cracking the top 10.
The youngest player — and one of the most intriguing — in the top 20 is 19-year-old Marcelo Mayer. The Boston Red Sox shortstop comes in at No. 14 after playing in rookie ball where he had just 91 plate appearances and hit .275 with three home runs and 17 RBIs.
Callis thought Mayer was the best player in the 2021 MLB Draft when he was selected No. 4 overall.
“We had him ranked as the best pure hitting ability in the draft and the best defensive ability in the draft,” Callis said. “The only thing he really doesn’t do is he’s kind of a fringy to average runner, but everything else — he’s a no-doubt shortstop, really good shortstop. I guess if he slowed down a little bit more and he got really big and added more strength than we thought and had to move to third base, I still think he can hit for average and a ton of power.
“He’s in that Red Sox market, and I assume Yankees prospect Jasson Dominquez gets everybody excited. But I think Marcelo Mayer could really be a guy who moves quickly.”
Another guy that really intrigues Callis is Miami Marlins right-handed pitcher Eury Perez. He has pitched fewer than 80 innings in professional baseball entering this season, but he’s showing off a 98 mph fastball and unbelievable changeup, Callis said. Perez, who turns 19 in mid-April, has a big presence on the mound at 6-foot-8.
“I could see, if you told me he was the best pitching prospect at the end of the season, that’s possible,” Callis said.
A couple of top-100 players that Fischer is extremely high on are Mariners shortstop Noelvi Marte and Colorado Rockies outfielder Zac Veen.
Ranked No. 11 on the top 100, Marte has good power. He hit 17 home runs a season ago and logged a respectable .273/.366/.459.
“He’s obviously on the radar now for people, but I think you’re going to see some really good things from him,” Fischer said.
Veen comes in at No. 37 on the list.
“I’ve heard some really, really good stuff about him that he’s got a really good makeup, an incredible work ethic,” Fischer said. “We heard from a guy who knows his trainer and the trainer says he’s never seen anyone like Zac in his life. He is going to be, I think, pretty special.”
A couple guys out of the top 100 that Callis can see rise up the rankings in the near future are Texas Rangers prospect Dustin Harris and Chicago Cub James Triantos.
Harris, an 11th-round draft pick by the Oakland A’s in 2019, put up solid numbers in junior college. His hitting success carried over to professional ball. Combined at Low-A and High-A last season, Harris hit 20 home runs, stole 25 bases and hit .327.
Triantos, the Cubs’ No. 3 ranked prospect, was a second-round pick in 2021 after reclassifying and graduating high school early.
“He reclassified after the Summer Showcase circuit, so people thought he was going to be in next year’s draft,” Callis said. “When you’re seeing James Triantos, you’re worried about the guys in next year’s draft, not him. So guys were rushing to see him late last spring.”
A two-way player as a pitcher and hitter, Triantos led his high school team to a state championship last season.
“This guy can really, really, really hit,” Callis said. “I don’t think he’s necessarily going to stay at shortstop, probably more to second or third base, but he can really hit. He’s a right-handed hitter and I think he flies under the radar a little bit because he wasn’t a first-round pick and he wasn’t hyped throughout the spring. Comps — you can take comps for what they are — but there are guys who are like, ‘This guy could be David Wright. This guy could be Alex Bregman.’ He could be that type of right-handed bat.”
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
Fischer thrives at pulling diamonds out of the rough when it comes to prospects. As mentioned above, in 2019, he tabbed Julio Rodriguez as a future star even though he wasn’t in the top 100 yet. The following year, Fischer predicted Blue Jays’ Orelvis Martinez would shoot up the list in the future. He’s gone from outside the top 100 to No. 38 on this year’s MLB Pipeline list.
This year, the guy Fischer believes is the real deal is teenager Roderick Arias. The New York Yankees signed the 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in January international free agency period. He is a switch-hitter with solid power and speed.
“I think he’s going to be a good one,” said Fischer, who noted Onyx is the only company that has Arias base and autographed cards. “I know there’s been a lot of hype around Jasson Dominguez, which is rightly so, but I think Roderick has a better hit tool to him. In other words, better strike zone discipline, and he’s going to develop some power. I think for that next round, granted, I don’t know how much of a surprise he would be in that sense, but I think someone to really keep an eye on is Roderick.”
PROSPECT CARD PRICES EXPLODE
As trading cards continue to remain hot, prospecting is perhaps at an all-time high. As are prices for the future stars of the game.
Teenage phenom Dominguez is still high on prospectors’ minds. In late February, his 2020 Bowman Chrome Prospects Autograph Superfractor (PSA 10) sold at auction for a remarkable $474,000.
Just a few weeks later, Mayer’s top card stole the show at auction. His 2021 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks Autographs Superfractor (PSA 9, auto 10) sold for an astonishing $132,000.
Fischer was a little floored when he saw those prices for two teenagers who haven’t cracked big-league rosters yet.
“I’m thinking they’re taking a massive risk,” Fischer said. “If you go back not even a couple years ago, Superfractors, unless it was Mike Trout, it was unheard of to see anything hit that kind of level, which tells you just how much money is coming into the industry itself. To see something like that is scary because there’s a lot of hype and if I’m going to spend that kind of money, I’m going to do some serious due diligence before I jump on that.
“As we’ve seen with Zion Williamson — granted it’s basketball — but a lot of money was pouring into Zion cards last year, and now look at what’s happened today. Same thing with Jasson Dominguez. I think there’s an ungodly amount of talent there, but it’s very young and sometimes you’ve got to wonder what the money is going to do to their mentality and the circle of friends. He didn’t come out of the gate with a bang like a lot of people were hoping for. I think there’s got to be some sort of due diligence and risk adverse planning if you’re going to spend that kind of money.”
Dominguez’s Superfractor going for nearly half a million dollars after a mediocre first season in professional baseball was an eye-opener. The 19-year-old actually went from being ranked No. 28 on the top-100 list at the beginning of 2021 to No. 61 this year.
“Us ranking him lower is not a reflection that he had a bad year or that he failed at something,” Callis said. “I think it’s more, let’s just pump the brakes and let him get out of A ball before we put him in the Hall of Fame. His ceiling’s still extremely, extremely high.”
Dominguez spent his first year in pro ball at the rookie level and Single-A. He had five homers and 19 RBIs in 206 at-bats with a breakdown of .252/.353/.732.
“The hype was probably unfair to Dominguez and it’s kind of ridiculous for me to say that, because every time I wrote about him, I mentioned how guys compare him to Mickey Mantle and Bo Jackson and Mike Trout,” Callis said. “I can’t really complain when the hype was unfair when I kept using that line. Unless Dominguez came out and hit like .400 with 50 homers, I think people would have been like, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this guy?’
“But that said, he’s extremely gifted. He made a successful pro debut in Fall League ball. The comparison you get, physically, he looks like he should be playing running back at Alabama or Georgia in the SEC. He’s that kind of really, really physical athlete.”
With his top card selling for nearly $500,000, the prospects experts find it hard to fathom that that card is worth taking a risk on at that price.
“Heck, even if he’s a good player and maybe has a couple All-Star games under his belt, would that card even hit a million dollars even at that point?” Fischer said. “I think with a million-dollar card, you’re looking at someone like Ja Morant that just came out of the gate on fire, high draft pick, has really fulfilled a lot of those expectations. Of course, Jordan, LeBron, you don’t have to say anything about why their levels are where they’re at.
“Man, some of these young, young kids, there’s just a lot more risk in prospecting. We try to take some of that out when people buy our Onyx cards. But it’s a lot of money.”
Fischer believes having a Superfractor of Mayer — who isn’t the most well-known prospect — selling for $132,000 really sets the bar for prices for prospects cards. That bar just keeps rising and rising.
“This frenzy has gotten so high where everyone was like, people don’t want to miss out on that 1-of-1 or to /5 or to /25,” Fischer said. “It becomes this bidding war of, OK, this kid was a first-round pick or he was a top-five pick or he was the top international kid — he’s going to pan out. And the odds of that are so slim to make it in the Hall of Fame or have a Hall of Fame-type career that you’re setting a bar.
“It’s going to be scary, because at some point does that bar totally fall off and everything drops? That hurts the industry, because if these higher cards drop, everything below that’s going to drop, too.”