By Greg Bates
When Wander Franco started ripping it up in the minor leagues, MLB prospectors started salivating. The top prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system displayed eye-popping talent.
As the most sought-after international signee in 2017, Franco didn’t have his first trading cards released until 2018 when Panini Elite and Leaf jumped on the bandwagon. The two companies put out sharp cards, but without logos, they lacked the big-time collectability factor. It wasn’t until Bowman announced Franco would highlight its 2019 release that collectors started getting excited about his first MLB-licensed rookie card.
When Bowman Chrome, which is an extremely prospect-driven product, came out on April 17 of this year, Franco’s card set off a mad rush for collectors to get their hands on the product. Base autographed rookie cards of Franco were selling for $500 apiece right out of the gate.
Franco’s cards – even four months after the Chrome release – have taken the hobby by storm.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Pat Blest, who is the product manager for Dave and Adam’s Card World. “If you’re a prospector and you follow the prospects, you know who Wander Franco is. But I don’t know if anyone expected to see values right off the bat like that.”
“That’s extremely high,” said Zach Polen, who co-owns PC Sportscards. “If he doesn’t perform, there’s a lot of risk people are taking on in buying his cards as well.”
Another dealer at the National Sports Collectors Convention, Jake Kreeger, wasn’t shocked by the high prices.
“I wasn’t surprised then; I’m still not surprised,” Kreeger said. “To be honest, part of me would have thought it might have even climbed higher by now, because everybody so readily refers to the ‘Judge boom’ and what that did for the hobby. I look back further and say that was already happening with Trout. When Trout’s Chrome cards hit the market, they were doing somewhere in the $200 range, and that was crazy. They didn’t spike right away, but a couple years later they spiked.”
That $500 for a base auto, that’s raw card. That isn’t even counting the eight parallel colored numbered cards. Those were garnering several thousand dollars and even into five figures. A /5 version Franco can reach in the $15,000-$20,000 range.
“You would think, do you want that or a Mickey Mantle?” Onyx Authenticated, Inc. President Lance Fischer said. “The diehard vintage collectors would obviously say that’s a no-brainer, give me the Mantle. But it tells you how this industry has become very stock-orientated now.”
Franco’s superfractor 1/1 autographed card was pulled by a collector in Texas in early May. He promptly sold the raw card privately for an undisclosed amount reportedly between $60,000 and $100,000.
Franco, who the Rays signed out of the Dominican Republic, just turned 18 on March 1. Even though Franco is a young player, he’s been ripping the cover off the baseball at every level.
In rookie ball in 2018, Franco hit .351 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI in just 61 games. He accelerated quickly through single A Bowling Green after hitting .318, Franco was promoted to high A with the Charlotte Stone Crabs. His numbers dipped slightly recently, but he was still hitting .323 in early August.
“With Wander, the kid’s special, there’s no doubt about it,” Fischer said. “What he’s doing in high A right now at his age, I wouldn’t say it’s unprecedented because you saw what Vlady Jr. did last year. But it definitely ranks up there with the numbers he’s producing like some all-time greats in the sense of minor league performance.”
Fischer is extremely talented at identifying and tracking the top prospects in baseball. When Franco signed with the Rays as a 16-year-old, he was already on Fischer’s radar. But even he was surprised just how high prices skyrocketed.
“We knew there would be demand, but I think with what happened last year with Vlady and (Juan) Soto and now this year, I think with the prospects and the talent in the minors right now, that to me is unprecedented,” Fischer said. “We’ve never seen this many young guys be able to perform at such a high level and put up the stats they are today. So, what’s happened now is the prospects have really helped the industry as a whole but have driven prices to just insane amounts that we never forecasted, that’s for sure, but we’re excited about it.”
Onyx signed Franco to an autograph deal in March 2019. The company, which prides itself on putting out more affordable cards for consumers, put out a ton of Franco cards in its Onyx Vintage product this year. An ungraded base autograph card for Franco is already demanding between $75-$100 on eBay, noted Fischer.
“For us being an unlicensed product, that’s huge,” said Fischer, who went to lunch with Franco and his agent in mid-July. “And, of course, we’ve got our tiered, and those go up even more.”
Topps had its radar on Franco for quite a while and wanted to release his first card in a 2019 product. When the Chrome card was released, the Bowman Team – which is part of Topps’ brand team – knew the card would have an impact on the hobby but didn’t know to what extent.
“We don’t really track the secondary market,” said Susan Lulgjuraj, Topps’ marketing and communications manager. “We look at it, don’t get me wrong, to see what’s going on. But to take a guess at what the secondary market price is going to be, we have no idea.
"But over the last couple of years, we saw Ohtani come out and it was crazy,” Lulgjuraj said. “Especially, these international stars, there’s a pretty good chance that the secondary prices are going to be pretty crazy when they first come out.”
With Franco Bowman Chrome autographs on such high demand, Zach Polen knew when he got to Chicago for the National, he needed to pick up a few more Franco’s to add to his display cases.
“We want to try and have everyone that’s hot and new and big,” Polen said. “It’s the stuff that sells right away. The stuff that really moves like a stock.”
Already armed with a gold refractor numbered /50 and Beckett graded 8.5 and 10 autograph, Polen dropped over five figures and added about 10 Franco cards to sell.
“He’s got everything going for him as a prospect,” Pollen said. “The reason I’m buying them is because the higher-end market is already bought up, so I think the lower to mid-range ones are going to appreciate more.”
Polen picked up a pair of blue refractors /150 Beckett graded gem mint 9.5 and 10 autograph, two refractors to /499 Beckett graded 9.5 and 10 autograph and a number of base autos with the same grades by Beckett.
Polen’s sticker price for the gold refractor was $3,500, the blue $3,000 and the base cards at $700.
Early on at the National, Kreeger picked up two Franco Chrome autos. By Saturday evening, he had sold one of them, making a 25% on the deal. He said he worked out a trade/cash option with a young collector who wanted the card badly. Kreeger got about $750 in value for the Franco.
“It seems like at this point his market to buy and sell can be a pretty quick flip or be a hold, depending on what you want to do and how much money you want tied up,” Kreeger said. “But it seems like a pretty good piece to stand by right now.”
Kreeger’s second Franco was a Beckett graded 9.5 and 10 autograph that he was asking $750. Was there any wiggle room on the price? “I doubt it,” Kreeger said.
At the Topps booth at the National, kids and adults were cracking Bowman Chrome throughout the event. Topps ran a redemption program where collectors could pick up a free pack of NSCC-exclusive Bowman cards when they bought a box of 2019 Topps cards from an on-site dealer.
A young collector was lucky enough to pull a Franco autograph from a redemption pack. “She knew exactly what she had and she was super excited,” Lulgjuraj said.
If most dealers and collectors have one similar thought about Franco cards it is that they expect his prices to stay high until he debuts in the majors in about 2021.
“That’s the roll of the dice, right,” Blest said. “Once he gets to the majors and depending on how his career transpires, it could be a Mike Trout situation where he’s one of the best baseball players in the game and the card values go crazy or they could fall off a cliff because he didn’t meet expectations. And the expectations are high, obviously.”
Said Fischer: “Vlady Jr. is probably the best example where, hype, hype, hype, performance and then back to hype. Then he hits the bigs and everyone is kind of holding their breath to see what happens. Once (Franco) gets to the bigs – and even though he’s in the Tampa Bay market, doesn’t matter – if he performs at a high level like he is today, they’re going to go even higher, which is hard to imagine.
“It’s like, how high can these really go? Right now, there’s no ceiling.”
No ceiling when a base autographed rookie card is right around four figures for a kid who is still carrying his own bats after single A games? Amazing. But prospectors are willing to take the chance on the kid.
“I think a lot of guys are trying to play this market from the swallow up position,” Kreeger said. “I know guys that have $50,000 in Wander right now in all sorts of colors and there’s no good reason for it other than they believe they will continue to grow and if they have a greater amount of the market, they can set the price.”
If Franco is the real deal once he hits the majors, look out. His cards could double in price.
“There’s also that chance he could be the next Oscar Tavares,” Kreeger said. “I don’t want to say it that way, but that’s the hobby we’re in. We’re gambling with pieces of cardboard behind plastic that have signatures on them. That’s what it is.”