Wander Franco, Gavin Lux, Luis Robert and Adley Rutschman.
Those are just a few guys that have become almost household names to baseball card collectors. Yet, they have barely begun making their mark as professional baseball players.
This year’s top MLB prospects are impressive. Prospectors who are searching to find the next Mike Trout or Ronald Acuna Jr. have plenty of young, talented players to choose from. It’s another deep class.
“I just think the talent gets better, the eye for talent gets better,” said Lance Fischer, who is the president of Onyx Authenticated, Inc. “The teams are doing more due diligence when it comes to identifying who they think is going to make their team better or the investment that they put into it, anyways. The risk has gone down quite a bit from 10 years ago. You see it a little bit in the market now, because you see these investments going in and these crops of prospects over the last couple of years, the payoff has been pretty nice for people.”
Last year’s top three prospects entering the season—Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Eloy Jimenez—all ended up playing major roles for their major league clubs.
“I think this year’s going to be as good as the last couple years, if not better,” Dave & Adam’s Card World Product Manager Pat Blest said. “I know on my outlook on the upcoming year, there’s a few guys that are probably going to make a pretty immediate impact.”
Players who can come in and have an immediate impact is a good sign for prospectors looking to cash in.
“They know who has a good chance at making an impact a couple years out and they can start forecasting from there,” Blest said. “When they do make that impact, they’re sitting on those cards and once they get on everyone else’s radar, that’s when you see those prices start to go up on the secondary market or on eBay.”
Fischer compares investing on cards to putting money in the stock market. It’s all about risk and reward.
“Obviously, the higher the risk, higher potential for reward or loss, depending on how deep you want to go in your pocket,” Fischer said. “That’s kind of the name of the game. You’ve got all these case breakers now, so if you’re into case breaking and you hit one of those hits, you may not have spent a lot. If you’re doing this stuff all the time, then obviously it adds up. I don’t think it’s bad for the hobby. It’s good, it drives more sales; it drives more interest. A lot of people are in this hobby now for investment purposes. I think the investors are pretty equal and maybe even more to the number of collectors out there now. As a manufacturer, you’ve got to be able to cater to both of those groups.”
Lux and Robert are two guys who could make immediate impacts at the MLB level and have set themselves apart as preseason Rookie of the Year candidates.
Lux, a September call-up last season who helped the Los Angeles Dodgers during their postseason run, is battling for the starting second base position. He showed during last year’s big league stint that he’s ready to face high-level pitching. Lux started out hot with the Dodgers and cooled off to a .240 average with two home runs and nine RBI.
“He showed a lot of increased power in the minors last year to go along with a pretty good hit tool,” Blest said. “I would expect him to be a perennial All-Star type player at second for the Dodgers for years to come. The guy’s going to hit 20-25 home runs and add 20 stolen bases or so per year.”
Lux’s cards have been on a steady increase with his climb in the Top 100 Prospects lists. MLB Pipeline has him ranked No. 2 overall. Lux’s 2016 Bowman Chrome Draft autograph PSA 10 base card sells for around $500 on eBay.
Robert, one of the top international signees in 2017, is primed to play a big role in the Chicago White Sox outfield this season.
Robert is the No. 3-rated prospect this year after collecting a minor league-best 165 hits in 2019.
“I definitely think he can make a huge difference,” Fischer said. “The benefit he had is that he just signed a nice contract, so the White Sox have him locked in for a little while. I think he can contribute right away. The White Sox don’t have to hold him down.”
White Sox teammate Eloy Jimenez recently compared Robert to Trout. Pretty high praise for a kid who has yet to sniff an MLB game.
“Another big league-ready prospect with a lot of athleticism,” Blest said. “Top-level power plus speed. He’s going to play great defense in center field for them. If he works on cutting down the strikeouts, we’re probably looking at a 40-plus home run guy that can hit for decent average.”
Orlando Sports Cards South owner Kendall Loyd was getting flooded early in spring training with collectors stopping into his shop for Robert cards.
“His cards, barring autographs, are relatively cheap,” Loyd said. “All his Bowmans, they’re $3-$10. They’re not $50-$100 yet.”
Robert’s 2018 Bowman Chrome autograph PSA 10 base card is fetching over $1,000 on eBay.
Blest is also extremely high on Los Angeles Angels outfielder Jo Adell, who is the sixth-rated prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
Adell, a top-75 prospect the last three preseasons, has exceptional power and bat speed and quick hands.
“Tons of raw talent that’s probably going to translate to 30-plus home runs, 20-plus steals per year,” Blest said. “Similar to Robert, if he can cut down on strikeouts in the majors, the sky’s the limit for a guy like that. I think it would be pretty fun to see him, Trout and (Shohei) Ohtani in the same lineup year after year.”
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson, rated the No. 17 prospect, continues to impress and could make the Opening Day roster.
“He does pretty much everything really well, maybe nothing that stands out too much,” Blest said. “Good bat speed, controls the strike zone well, he’s good on the base paths. He’ll probably get you a few stolen bases as well and he’ll play solid defense.”
Seattle Mariners slugger Jarred Kelenic, rated No. 11, has been a popular choice at Loyd’s card shop.
“He’s another one people are coming here asking for,” Loyd said. “I know they’re not Seattle Mariners fans. They’re either Mets fans or just fans of him.”
Rutschman was the No. 1 overall pick to the Baltimore Orioles in the 2019 draft. He’s climbed the ranks in his first season and lands at the No. 4 prospect in the country. His cards are going through the roof. His 2019 Bowman Chrome Draft autograph PSA 10 base card sells for upwards of $750 on eBay.
“I’m actually hoping that for some crazy possibility that the Orioles will actually bring him up this year and see what he can do,” Blest said. “A catcher with elite defensive skills and the offensive skills that he has, just a great hitter. Just really a total package. And hopefully they won’t have to wait too long to see him.”
Franco and Mariners phenom Julio Rodriguez are two youngsters – both just 19 years old -- who are making prospectors salivate with their long-term promise.
Franco is the consensus No. 1 prospect; he rapidly moved up from No. 13 in last year’s preseason top-100 list. The Tampa Bay Rays shortstop hit .327 with two Rays minor league teams last season. When Franco’s first Bowman card was released last year, his ungraded base auto was selling for well over $500 apiece right out of the gate. That same card is now fetching in excess of $1,000 on eBay.
Rodriguez, who was a virtual unknown last season except possibly for diehard prospectors, wasn’t even a top-100 preseason pick. But Fischer predicted in March 2019 that Rodriguez would shoot up the rankings. He certainly did, landing as the No. 18 overall prospect this year.
Franco and Rodriguez won’t be cracking an MLB lineup this season, but Blest doesn’t think it will be too long until they are in The Show.
“It’s almost expected now that guys like that are going to come up sooner rather than later and contribute right away,” Blest said. “These kids seem to be so much more well prepared now. I think it’s probably something that runs through most baseball organizations now that they really focus on these players at the lower levels and pay attention to how they advance.”
There are a few off-the-radar players who are piquing the interest of Fischer.
“A kid I like—and you’re not going to see much of him this year, maybe not until summer leagues start—is Robert Puason of the A’s,” Fischer said. “He was a July 2 (call up) last year. I’ve been following this kid and his work ethic and the head on his shoulders. The focus this kid’s got, I’m impressed. I think he’s going to be a good one.”
Another guy with exponential growth is Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Orelvis Martinez, who isn’t in the top 100. He had a great start to last season, hitting seven home runs in 40 games, before he suffered an injury.
“The kid is just a beast behind the bat, absolutely kills the ball,” Fischer said. “If he can stay healthy, definitely keep an eye on him.”
Fischer has three international players high on his list: Puason, Dodgers outfielder Luis Rodriguez and Kansas City Royals 17-year-old outfielder Erick Pena.
“I think those are three guys to really watch that could surprise some people,” said Fischer, who thinks they can have the impact that San Francisco Giants teenage phenom Marco Luciano made last year.
Speaking of Giants, Loyd gets a lot of collectors coming into his shop for Luciano, rated No. 35, Joey Bart, rated No. 14, and Heliot Ramos, who comes in at No. 65.
“Those three guys, I sporadically get people asking for them,” Loyd said. “Again, they’re on the other side of the country, but still, people look for them.”
Pitchers comprise four of the top 12 players in MLB Pipeline’s top-100 list. Even though there are good arms on the list, that doesn’t always lure in prospectors.
“On the cards, people obviously shy away from pitchers because they get hurt a little bit easier than hitters do,” Fischer said. “But that doesn’t mean the talent and the potential for domination is there. You’ve got Mackenzie Gore, Nate Pearson. I think those are two of the top guys there. If they can stay health, those guys are going to be aces for their team, there’s no doubt about it. Maybe not the first year, but both them easily could see major league time.”
As far as overall organizations, Blest really likes what the Chicago White Sox, with four players in the top 100, have done. They have a deep farm system and with guys like Robert, Michael Kopech and Nick Madrigal coming up soon, the future looks bright.
“I like their approach with making some trades for Eloy Jimenez, picking him up in a trade and then signing him to an extension right away,” Blest said. “They did the same thing with Robert this year, signing him to an extension. And advancing those guys quickly.”
Blest is also high on the Rays and the Minnesota Twins’ systems.
Fischer on the other hand really likes the Mariners with five top-100 players. With Rodriguez, Kelenic, Evan White and Noelvi Marte in the minors, they are building for something big.
Fischer’s top overall organization is the Blue Jays.
With youngsters Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio already in the majors and top-10 pitcher Nate Pearson on the cusp, the Blue Jays are for real.
“I’ll tell you what, the Blue Jays are definitely going to be a team to be reckoned with in the East in the next year or two,” Fischer said.
The Padres boast five top-100 players, including Gore. Add in MLB youngsters Tatis and Luis Urias, and the Padres have a recipe for some good teams down the line.
“You may see the Padres and the Blue Jays in the World Series,” Fischer said.
Hot Card Market
Loyd always loves it when spring training rolls around because he gets collectors who come in looking for their favorite prospectors. This year was no different despite spring training being cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“When these guys are buying a lot of these prospects, a lot of times they will buy almost every one that I have,” Loyd said. “I’m not saying that I have 100, but I could have seven, I could have 10, I could have 12. For the most part, they’ll take all of them.”
Loyd emphatically said the card market’s hot right now.
“It’s mostly newer stuff, but there’s no way it can continue at this pace,” Loyd said. “In the 30 years I’ve been here, it’s hard to remember back to the Shaq days or the Ichiro days or the LeBron days, but those are three names that I remember were really big. For the last year, year and a half, it’s been pretty good.”
At Dave & Adam’s Card World, Blest primarily deals with unopened boxes and cases. He sees the ebbs and flows of the market, which is currently thriving with unopened material.
“You see the prices on those products slowly start to increase with the prospect content and rookie content,” Blest said.
So, what products are specifically hot?
“A lot of the pre-’18 stuff is just so hard to get, so scarce in the marketplace,” Blest said. “2018 Bowman Draft, ’19 Bowman Chrome, ’19 Bowman Draft – those are the ones that are still readily available on the market. But you’ll definitely see the price go up on those at a pretty steady clip.”
Prospectors are snatching up a couple-year-old products to look for today’s stars. They are getting a lot quicker return on their investment.
“If you look at the pricing on products this year, in years past you might be able to lock in on presells really cheap, and based on the market right now and how things have gone the last couple years, it’s not as easy to do,” Blest said. “The pricing is already kind of built in to levels that take into account how quickly these prospects make it to the majors and have an impact. For them, the money a prospector puts in, you’re seeing quicker returns now. Maybe you don’t see the big returns, because it’s hard to get products really cheap, but you do maybe turn your inventory a little quicker than years past.”
Blest expects the market, especially with prospects, to stay hot.
“I think this is going to continue into 2021 for sure,” Blest said. “It’s going to be very similar to 2020. And we’re really at a point now where there’s no down time in the market, it’s all year long. There’s products that hold their value well.”
Card companies are certainly taking advantage of the prospects push and continue to release solid prospect-driven material.
“They’re doing a really good job of marketing those guys,” Blest said. “Topps has collaborated with Baseball America, so there’s some synergy there. They’ll have online offers with the Topps Now program that tie in with Baseball America. But you really focus on those top 50 prospects. MLB in general is starting to put more focus on their MLB Draft, having players at the draft – really introducing those guys to young baseball fans a lot sooner.”