Prospecting is a huge part of baseball. MLB teams are often reluctant to give up on their top young players since the reward if they pay off is massive. If you can develop a young star, MLB teams have the potential to get seven years of production at below market value. Even though there’s no salary cap, getting production from undervalued assets is a great way to find yourself in contention every year. Teams that are considered the smartest in baseball – the Rays, the Dodgers, and the Astros – are routinely bringing up new players from the minor leagues to bolster their cores.
Additionally, prospecting in the baseball card market is big business. We see this to an extent in every sport – rookie cards will always fetch a higher premium than non-rookies – but it is particularly abundant in baseball. Players spend years in the minors honing their craft before even qualifying as rookies, and hundreds of different players enter the league each year. That makes identifying values much harder than it is in other sports.
We’re approximately one month into the MLB season, so let’s take the temperature for some of the top rookies in the card market.
Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
Franco has long been considered the top prospect in baseball, and he finally made his major league debut last year. He did not disappoint, finishing with a 127 wRC+ over 308 plate appearances, and he finished in third place in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Franco also displayed prodigious plate discipline for a youngster. He reached base in 43 consecutive games, tying Frank Robinson’s record from 1956 for players age-20 or younger.
The Rays rewarded Franco with an 11-year, $182M contract in the offseason, which goes to show just how highly the organization views him. The usually frugal Rays don’t hand out big money to just anyone, but Franco has the feel of a major star.
Franco has done nothing to change the narrative around him in his second year. He’s off to another solid start, posting a .279 batting average and a 121 wRC+ through his first 34 games. He’s also displayed more power this season, and he should only continue to progress in that area as he gets older.
Considering all the hype around Franco, it’s not surprising that he has become one of the most desired players in the card market.
That said, something strange has happened with his rookie card. His true rookie – from 2022 Topps Series 1 – has actually gone down in value over the past month (via Alt):
That brings up an interesting question: If Franco is living up to his stud billing, why is his price tag dropping?
The answer likely stems from the state of the sports card hobby. Manufacturers like Topps continue to make more and more product, so a Franco base rookie is simply more widely available that a base rookie for an older player.
Let’s look at Mike Trout as an example. His Topps rookie card came out in 2011, which is more than a decade ago. There are currently 11,005 base Trout rookies currently in PSA’s database. Franco’s Topps rookie card came out approximately three months ago, and there are already more than 1,200 graded copies in PSA’s database. Considering it takes at least one month to get a card back from PSA these days – conservatively – that is a crazy number.
A YouTuber by the name of Scottie B Cards did an excellent breakdown on the sheer volume of Franco rookies. His math isn’t exact, but he estimated that there are approximately 730,000 Franco rookie cards from Topps Series 1. That is a massive difference compared to someone like Trout. We’re still not approaching the “junk wax” era of production, but we’re trending in that direction.
Ultimately, this comes down to supply and demand. There are so many Franco rookies available that they’re simply not all that valuable. That makes a base Franco rookie one of the worst investments you can make.
If you look at some of the numbered parallels for Franco – which have a set print-run – his card continues to hold value. His green parallel numbered to 499 has held strong despite his base rookie card dropping precipitously:
Keep this in mind when investing in sports cards moving forward. The player is obviously important, but scarcity is just slightly behind. Rare cards are going to cost you more money, but they will undoubtedly hold more value.
Vidal Brujan, Rays
There is a big drop off after Franco in Topps Series 1. There’s no other no-doubt superstar who has received there official Topps rookie card this year. That will change in the future – more on that later – but for the time being, you’re just taking shots on players with upside.
Brujan is one of the most appealing options in this class, and he’s available on the cheap. The price of his raw base rookie has dipped to just $0.99, and a PSA 10 will run you just $50. I still wouldn’t view a base rookie card of Brujan as a long-term investment – it faces the same issues as a base Franco rookie – but his price could certainly increase with success at the major league level.
Brujan has had the opportunity to put his skillset on display recently filling in for the injured Brandon Lowe. Unfortunately, he hasn’t exactly taken advantage. While he has displayed elite bat-to-ball skills – he owns just a 9.8% strikeout rate – he’s managed just a 27 wRC+.
Still, Brujan seems ready for the big leagues. He posted a 111 wRC+ in Triple-A last year, and he’s increased that figure to 137 this season. Brujan still has work to do as a power hitter, but he’s a massive threat on the bases. He’s racked up 50 steals over 119 games in Triple-A since the start of 2021.
If he can develop some power to go with his speed, he has the chance to be a special player. Expect him to find a permanent role in the majors at some point this season.
Jarren Duran, Boston Red Sox
Duran entered the season as the Red Sox's No. 3 overall prospect and the No. 52 prospect in the major leagues. He didn’t appear ready for the majors in his first taste of big-league action in 2021 – he struggled to a 49 wRC+ – but his numbers in Triple-A this season have been excellent. Like Brujan, he’s a major threat on the base paths, but he’s also displayed a bit more power as a youngster.
Duran displayed his upside in his brief, one-game stint at the MLB level recently. He moved up to replace Enrique Hernandez, who landed on the COVID-19 Injured List. Duran went 1-4 with a walk, and he posted a 218 wRC+.
The Red Sox have quietly started to heat up of late, and Duran should get a full-time shot in the majors at some point in the near future. He’s one of the few players in Series 1 whose price has actually increased recently, but you can still grab a raw base rookie for around $2.50. The green parallel /499 will cost you closer to $30-40, but that seems like the preferred route if you believe in his talent.
Brandon Marsh, Los Angeles Angels
Marsh is technically not a rookie after receiving 260 plate appearances last season, but like Franco, his Topps rookie card appears in 2022 Series One. Marsh was considered a blue-chip prospect entering last season, ranking first in the Angels’ farm system and 11th overall. However, his star lost a bit of shine following a mediocre season with an 86 wRC+ and just two homers.
However, Marsh has started to put things together in 2022. He got off to an elite start this year, posting a 137 wRC+ in March and April. He’s cooled off a bit in May, but he’s still been an above-average option at the dish.
Considering Marsh’s combination of pedigree and production, it’s not surprising that his cards are on the rise. A raw base rookie from Topps Series 1 will cost you just $1.50 or so, but that still represents an increase of more than 50% over the past month. However, his green parallel has stayed pretty stagnant, which could make for an interesting investment opportunity.
Gavin Sheets, Chicago White Sox
Sheets is a bit different than the other top Series One prospects. Guys like Brujan, Duran, and Marsh all have multi-faceted offensive games, but Sheets is a pure hitter. He hit right away as a rookie, posting a 125 wRC+ over 179 plate appearances last year, and he’s off to another decent start this season. His numbers are down a bit, but he’s still posted a 103 wRC+ with four homers in 93 plate appearances.
Sheets has also started to heat up of late. Three of his homers have come since May 9, so this could be a good opportunity to get on in him. His base rookie got to $2.50 at one point this season, but he’s back down to around $1.00.
Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners
Now let's get to the fun stuff. Rodriguez was a surprise addition to the Mariners’ Opening Day roster, so he was not included in the Topps Series One checklist. He will likely get his Topps rookie later in the year, but for now, you’ll have to stick with his first Bowman.
If you’re not familiar with Bowman, they are essentially the branch of Topps that focuses more heavily on prospects. A player will typically get his first Bowman “rookie” many years before making it to the major leagues. Some true collectors consider this the real rookie card for a particular player since it is usually the first time they appear on a baseball card.
Rodriguez got his first Bowman card in 2019, so that card has been in existence for quite some time now. He’s also been considered a premier prospect for a while, so there are plenty of graded copies in existence. PSA has just over 6,500 10s in their database, and those cards are going for approximately $125.
Ultimately, I much prefer a first Bowman to a traditional Topps rookie, and I think they’re much better investments overall. Remember what has happened with Franco’s rookie card? Rodriguez hasn’t seen nearly the same drop with his first Bowman chrome:
There are also plenty of parallels you can consider with first Bowmans, some of which also include autographs. Rodriguez has held his own this season despite being just 21 years old, with two homers, 10 stolen bases, and a 102 wRC+ through his first 141 plate appearances. He has the potential to be a special player.
Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City Royals
Witt is in a very similar situation to Rodriguez. He also made the Royals’ Opening Day roster somewhat surprisingly, and he’s also displayed his upside at a young age. He won’t turn 22 until June, but he’s managed three homers and five stolen bases through his first 32 games.
However, Witt was widely considered the superior prospect. He was taken second overall in the 2019 MLB Draft, and he entered the year as the No. 2 overall prospect. He dominated in Triple-A last year, racking up a 142 wRC+ with 17 homers and 15 steals against far older competition. Ultimately, he has the most superstar potential of anyone on this list outside of Franco.
Witt also got his first Bowman in 2019, and his card has been far tougher to grade than Rodriguez’s. Rodriguez’s first Bowman chrome has a ratio of nearly 4.5:1 when it comes to PSA 10s vs. PSA 9s. For Witt, the ratio is actually 1:2.4, so there are way more PSA 9s in existence than PSA 10s. That ratios make a true gem far more desirable for Witt than Rodriguez.
That was the case at the start of the year, with a PSA 10 for Witt checking in at around $325. However, his card has seen a massive decrease in value recently:
I love the idea of grabbing Witt at that price tag. His struggles at the plate won’t continue forever, and I fully expect a breakout in 2023. If you’re willing to wait it out, there could be some money to be made here.