By Greg Bates
It’s a great time to be a baseball card collector who loves the challenge of finding the next big thing.
Whether it’s a can’t-miss player who ranks near the top of the prospects list or an undrafted late bloomer who turns out to be a diamond in the rough, the hunt is half the battle.
A big part of Lance Fischer’s job is identifying major prospects and lining them up for signings with his company. The Onyx Authenticated, Inc. president and former scout for the Florida State football program has tracked his fair share of prospects over the years. He realizes how special this year’s baseball crop is capable of being.
“The top five guys, according to Baseball America, I think those guys have so much potential,” Fischer said. “In fact, I think the prospects this year and even last year are just some of the best prospects that I’ve seen in at least 15-20 years in a sense of the number of them. It’s not like these guys are going to be flash in the pan, these are guys that are potentially future Hall of Famers. The talent level and the scouting that goes on now on these guys is unbelievable. With the technology now and the amount of eyes and the amount of testing and everything else that goes into the investment of these players at such a young age, the teams want to make sure that they’re getting a guy that’s going to be able to help the team.”
These top prospects have been preparing for a number of years to steal the show. Now is their time.
“Obviously, excited for that,” Dave & Adam’s Card World Product Manager Pat Blest said. “It’s definitely going to be in a lot of baseball products, this prospect group that’s coming through now.”
The consensus No. 1 overall prospect this year by Baseball America and MLB.com is Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He is followed closely on MLB.com’s list by San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. Both of their dads played big league ball.
MLB.com’s Nos. 3-5 prospects are Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Washington Nationals outfielder Victor Robles and Minnesota Twins shortstop Royce Lewis.
Entering spring training, all the talk was about Guerrero, who just turned 20 on March 16.
“This a generational-type player,” Blest said. “I think when you look at his level and you probably have to go back to guys like Bryce Harper, Alex Rodriguez, (Ken) Griffey (Jr.) – that’s the kind of impact he’s going to have right off the bat. I have no doubt that when he gets up to the majors, I’m assuming by the end of April we’ll see him up there, he’s going to make an impact right away and he’s going to be a rookie of the year candidate, probably the clear favorite.”
Blest believes Guerrero has the potential to be a batting champion and hit 30 home runs.
Guerrero, who is Baseball America’s first No. 1 overall prospect to come from the Dominican Republic, ripped it up in the minors last year, hitting .381 with four teams. He’s a big kid, listed at 200 pounds by the Blue Jays and 220 by baseball-reference.com, but in actuality could be closer to 250.
“The thing that always scared me about Vlady, though, is his weight,” Fischer said. “He’s really got to be careful of his weight. The kid’s a talent, no question about it, but he’s got to keep an eye on his weight. He could balloon pretty quick.”
When players were matriculating to spring training camps in mid-February, Orlando Sports Cards South owner Kendall Loyd started to get his annual influx of customers. Fans heading to spring training games love to stop into the shop to pick up cards of prospects.
“Guerrero’s ahead by a mile,” Loyd said. “It’s Guerrero then everybody else. It’s really not even close. And we get a lot of Canadians down here, so there’s another reason.”
Loyd said Guerrero’s cards are so high priced he can generally only get his hands on base rookies like his 2016 Bowman Chrome.
“He’s desired pretty much all throughout the week,” Loyd said. “He plays right down the road from my store.”
Loyd has a friend who has been buying Guerrero cards since 2016 when the 17-year-old had autograph cards ranging from $60-$100.
“He stockpiled and he sent me a picture about a month ago and he has over 100 of his autographs,” Loyd said. “He could become filthy rich if Guerrero keeps doing anything.”
The No. 2 prospect on Blest’s list is Jimenez. Traded from the crosstown rival Chicago Cubs in July 2017, the 22-year-old has power at the plate that has been compared to Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
“Eloy Jimenez in any other year would probably be the clear-cut No. 1 prospect but with Vlad in front of him he would come in No. 2 on my list,” said Blest, who is expecting Jimenez to start the season in the minors but be called up to the majors relatively early. “You see what he did in the minors last year, he just crushed it. He’s a potential .300 hitter, 40-plus home runs. He’s going to bat in the middle of that lineup in Chicago for years to come.”
Said Fischer: “He could easily give Vlady a run for rookie of the year.”
Blest has Tatis as the No. 3 overall prospect. The 20-year-old has shown early in his career he has quite a bit of pop in his bat.
“He didn’t get many at-bats in the minors last year, but he obviously tore it up,” Blest said. “His strikeout rate was a little high in the minors but I think that will improve. His skill level though, it’s clear he can be a guy who’s capable of hitting for average plus power. He should stick at shortstop and could be a perennial All-Star.”
Out of the top three prospects, Blest said Guerrero and Jimenez have quite a bit of product on the market. Jimenez was in the 2013 international signing class, so his 2014 Bowman Chrome Draft is considered his rookie card. Tatis doesn’t have as much product on the market as the other two prospects, but his 2016 Bowman Chrome has been commanding high prices on eBay.
One player Fischer is extremely high on is MLB.com’s No. 13 overall prospect Wander Franco. The Tampa Bay Rays shortstop has been turning heads since last year when he hit .351 with 57 RBI in his first minor league season. Franco just turned 18 on March 1.
“He’ll be the top prospect in baseball if it’s not the end of this year, he will be for sure at the beginning of next year,” said Fischer, who had a signing with Franco early in spring training that will be included in 2019 Onyx Vintage Collection Baseball that will be released at the end of March. “He can hit the ball; he’s going to develop some really good power. I think he’s a guy that can definitely hit 30 home runs and bat over .300. I won’t say he’s the fastest guy on the base paths but he’s got some speed. He may or may not stick at shortstop it just depends on how much he grows. He did things last year that a lot of guys hadn’t done ever before in the low minors at such a young age.”
Since he’s just a teenager, Franco doesn’t have a lot of cards on the market. Leaf just released a non-licensed product and Panini has Extra Elite Edition cards. Fischer is expecting a lot of Franco cards will be produced and he’s one of the main faces tied to this year’s Bowman Chrome slated for release in April.
“I think with the Bowman product his base stuff is going to be close to $200,” Fischer said. “There’s a lot of hype around him, and it’s all justified.
He added, “That kid’s going to be a potential generational talent.”
Another player generating plenty of chatter is Los Angeles Angels outfielder Jo Adell. A five-tool talent, Adell could give the Angels a phenomenal 1-2 punch with Mike Trout.
Loyd said a lot of collectors have been coming into his shop looking for Adell cards.
Victor Robles was a September callup last year for the Washington Nationals and could make an impact this year in centerfield.
Loyd is also high on Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette (ranked No. 11 in MLB.com’s top 100) and Cincinnati Reds third baseman Nick Senzel (No. 6).
Blest really likes Minnesota Twins power hitter Alex Kirilloff (No. 9), Colorado Rockies infielder Brendan Rodgers (No. 10) and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Taylor Trammell (No. 16).
There are a couple pitchers extremely high on MLB.com’s top 100, including Forrest Whitley of the Houston Astros (No. 7) and Jesus Luzardo of the Oakland A’s (No. 12). Fischer thinks Rays pitcher Brent Honeywell is going to be really good for years to come despite having shoulder surgery last year.
Pitchers haven’t been some of the highest rated players on the top 100 lists the last couple of years. That rings true this year.
“The number of hitters out there and guys that can really hit the ball is kind of unprecedented,” Fischer said. “There’s just some guys that can really play and really hit that ball over the number of pitchers that are out there.”
Said Blest: “The hitters always become front and center and the pitchers maybe fall to the wayside but I think the one thing we’ve seen over the years is you have guys like Jesus Luzardo for example who had Tommy John (surgery) and those guys are coming back and they’re top prospects. Those injuries are no longer a setback really, you just know he’s going to be out for a year and come back just as good if not better. But I think the hitters have surpassed the pitchers as far as collectability.”
Because Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg was all the buzz in 2010 and then had arms issues, some prospectors now tend to shy away from pitchers because their careers could be done in an instant.
According to Loyd, cards for pitching prospects remain affordable, even for No. 1 overall picks such as Detroit Tigers’ Casey Mize.
“All those guys are $8-$15 for an autograph, so you can take a chance,” Loyd said. “It’s different than a Tatis, whose autographs are probably $100, Jimenez $100 and Guerrero $300-$500. They’re position players and they seem to pay more for them.”
With so many standout prospects these days, there are some organizations that are completely stacked. In Baseball America’s top 100 list, the Padres and Rays each have nine prospects. The Braves have eight and the Blue Jays seven.
“The Blue Jays are definitely up there. The Padres are putting together a pretty nice group of talent as well – they might be number one on a lot of peoples’ list,” Blest said. “Tampa Bay’s got a solid group coming through with Wander Franco, Brett Honeywell, Brendan McKay. Atlanta, always strong. They’ve got a great group of pitchers: Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint – those are all guys that could be in the rotation for years to come. And Austin Riley at third base is another quality prospect. Doesn’t seem fair, but Houston continues to find a way to add more talent to their system as well. Forrest Whitley, Kyle Tucker is a guy that I would think would be up there this year. The White Sox, Jimenez and Michael Kopech is coming back from Tommy John (surgery) and we’ll see him next year. Dylan Cease is a pitcher that could make an impact in the rotation this year. He was the minor league pitcher of the year.”
Fischer believes the top two minor league systems are the Padres and White Sox, which have both made some really solid trades in the last couple years to restock their supply.
“They’re pretty deep,” said Fischer about the Padres.
Loyd likes the Rays’ prospect system with Franco, Honeywell, McKay and Jesus Sanchez.
“They’re loaded,” Loyd said. “They pretty much dumped everybody.”
One under the radar organization is the Seattle Mariners with pitcher Justus Sheffield and outfield Jarred Kelenic, noted Fischer.
“The Mariners have got some guys that are young but have a lot of potential to make a difference,” Fischer said. “They’ve got a kid, Julio Rodriguez, that I think is going to be really, really good. And then I mentioned Noelvi Marte is going to be really good.”
Demanding big money
Even though the prospects have yet to prove themselves at the major league level, that doesn’t mean card prices are low for these guys.
Prospectors are willing to pay the price for snatching up numbered and autographed cards of whom they hope will be future stars.
“I think what’s happening is there’s a lot of money in the economy. You’ve got a lot of people that are looking for investment opportunities and I think you’ve probably got groups, believe it or not, of investors that are sinking a lot of money in these guys because, as we both know with prospecting, you can have massive gains overnight,” Fischer said. “The perfect example is Jonathan Loaisigi last year with the Yankees that gets called up, totally off the radar, nobody really even knows about this kid – gets called up to the Yankees and throws a one-hitter. (Onyx was) the only ones that had his autograph card out there, and literally two days before him being called up you couldn’t have gotten rid of a card for five bucks apiece. He does that and they’re going for $200. I think that kind of return and opportunity and risk is what’s really driving the prices and the number of investors into this industry.”
In mid-March, a Guerrero 2016 Bowman Chrome gold refractor autograph card numbered to 50 graded a 10 for the card and autograph by Beckett was on eBay for $35,000. A Tatis 2016 Bowman Chrome orange refractor autograph card numbered to 25 graded a 9.5 for the card and a 10 autograph by Beckett was on eBay for $14,999. A Jimenez 2017 Bowman Chrome superfractor relic 1/1 and graded a 9 by Beckett had a $10,000 price tag on eBay.
Blest doesn’t pay too much attention to single card sales prices but working at Dave & Adam’s Card World, he sees it in the unopened boxes in inventory for older years that have players such as Guerrero and Jimenez.
“We just sold a box of 2016 Bowman Chrome on the site for $540, which is just crazy if you think of the original price points on those boxes,” said Blest, who figures a box that year started out at about $65-$70. “You can tell the single card sales that are driving those prices.”
Over the years, Blest has watched as some collectors only go after MLB-licensed products that are the official card of the player in his team uniform.
“Other collectors probably don’t care, as long as the name’s on the card and his image is there or maybe there’s an auto, that’s good enough for them,” Blest said. “I would say everybody gets a little bit more excited about the officially-licensed stuff, the MLB-licensed trading cards from Topps and Panini as well. I know over the last couple of years that Elite Extra Edition has a really in-depth list of prospects, so you’ll find content in there as well.”
The card companies are catering to the big-time collectors by continuing to put out product of the prospects.
“For the last few years, Topps and the Bowman brands have products that are geared toward the prospects, so when you have those international signees or the Bowman Draft products, those guys are in there almost right away,” Blest said. “You have Bowman Chrome from 2016 that has Vlad Guerrero autographed content. They’ve been on the radar for those guys for a while now. Obviously, you can’t have a Guerrero rookie card or things of that nature until he actually plays, but they’re obviously really good now of following the career paths of these guys and anticipating when they’re going to be called up and working them into their products to take advantage it.”
Blest is expecting when 2019 Bowman Chrome is released in mid-April it will be a sought-after product with Guerrero, Jimenez and other top prospects. When 2018 Bowman Draft came out it did really well, noted Blest.
“It gets better every year,” Blest said. “These guys are marketed more and more by MLB. Most of the MLB analysts now are aware of these players that are featured on MLB Network. Everyone has their top prospect list and I think that’s created more awareness for these young players at an early stage in their careers and I would expect that to continue. It will only get bigger.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.