Spring Training: Prospecting for Prospects

By Greg Bates

Last year, Joc Pederson emerged as a rising star at the big league level.

The smooth-swinging Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder was a big name on prospectors’ lists coming into the season. He didn’t disappoint on the field.

It’s another Dodgers phenom who is attracting a lot of attention this season from those who love to track prospects: Corey Seager. The 21-year-old shortstop played 27 games in the majors last season and he’s ready to break out in 2016. Prospectors, take note.
“He’s probably the surest thing as prospects go,” said Pat Blest, Dave and Adam’s Card World product manager. “I don’t really see a problem with him making a transition to the majors and sticking around a real long time at short.”

The No. 1 player on Baseball America’s Top 100 list has quite a few cards on the market since he was a first-round pick in 2012. He also played on Team USA in 2010 and is featured in Bowman’s run that year.

“Even though the Dodgers aren’t around here, I sell a lot of his cards, so I know something’s up,” said Kendall Loyd, owner of  Orlando Sports Cards South. “As long as you’re not getting an autograph, they’re reasonable. A lot of his cards are $3 to $5.”

“I think it’s kind of what you saw last year with Kris Bryant before the beginning of last year, where if you were prospecting and tried to get his cards, you probably waited too long,” Blest said. “Because he had such a good showing with the Dodgers at the end of last year, he was pretty much on everyone’s radar. It’s probably too late to get any deals on his stuff.”

Seager, along with No. 2 overall prospect Byron Buxton, have been hot collectibles early in spring training. The Minnesota Twins center fielder got called up last season, but a sprained thumb sidelined him a big chunk of his rookie campaign.

“Guys like that definitely drive the early 2016 baseball product,” Blest said. “Seager is in Series 1 as a rookie, so obviously from that point on he’s going to be a rookie card in all those products. That will definitely drive sales for us there.”

Onyx President Lance Fischer, who pinpoints prospects before they make it big, is very high on Seager and Buxton.

VladJr“I definitely think Corey Seager’s special,” said Fischer, whose card company is based in Kissimmee, Fla. “There’s no doubt he can be a National League Rookie of the Year candidate. The kid’s got power, he hits for average. I think he’s got an opportunity to be really, really good.

“With Buxton, I think if he can stay healthy, he’s definitely going to be something special. The kid is fast as can be. He’s got a lot of tools, but his challenge has just been staying healthy.”

Experts agree that Boston Red Sox infielder Yoan Moncada is primed for a breakout season. The 20-year-old Cuban, who signed with the Red Sox in February 2015, was one of the top international players in the last signing period.

“If he reaches the potential that a lot of people think he has, he could be a guy you see late this year as a call-up if he can continue where he left off last year,” Fischer said.
When talking about prospects, Fischer has three budding stars who are still relatively under the radar. It starts with an international star, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Just like his father, who could crush a baseball, the younger Guerrero can hold his own at the plate.

“The kid is just massive,” Fischer said. “The kid is a power hitter and has the power of a guy like Miguel Sano. He should be hitting for average, too, so he might be very similar to his father.”

Guerrero had his first autograph session with Panini in 2015, and Fischer secured Guerrero for a signing for Onyx in March. He’s one of the highest-paid autographs Fischer’s company has ever paid for. The autographs Onyx will obtain will be on-card signatures and not stickers, Fischer noted.

“He’s someone our gut tells us is going to be real special, and even though we’re not the first, we want to be one of the first to have his autograph cards,” Fischer said.
“He’s going to be a very difficult autograph to get in the future, I think, just like his father was. It cost us a pretty penny to lock him down, and I know it cost Panini a pretty penny, too. There may not be a lot of autographs on the market, at least not for quite some time.”

esponozaAnderson Espinoza is another player Fischer is expecting big things out of. The Red Sox pitcher, who is just 17, will have his debut cards with Onyx, as well as his first autographs.

“He kind of came out of nowhere and had a great year,” Fischer said. “He can easily be one of the top pitchers in the minors over the year or two before he gets the opportunity to be called up to the Red Sox. He’s a young kid, but he’s just lights out. He’s another one to keep your eye out.”

Fischer’s third budding star is Washington Nationals five-tool outfielder Victor Robles. The 18-year-old is No. 33 in Baseball America’s Top 100 list after he came on the scene last year. Robles will have his first card and autograph in Onyx’s next release.

The Nationals also have a few other rising stars who are national top 10 players in pitcher Lucas Giolito and solid defensive shortstop Trea Turner, noted Blest.

MazaraFischer and Blest are both extremely impressed with the ability of Texas Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara. The 20-year-old has ripped his way up through the minors. The No. 21 prospect on the Baseball America Top 100 has great, raw power.
“He’s got a lot of talent, young kid,” Fischer said. “I think the Rangers may give him an opportunity. If you don’t follow prospecting real closely, he could surprise a lot of people with a call-up.”

Another Dodgers player making waves is pitcher Julio Urias. The 19-year-old is following in the footsteps of great talent coming from the minors, such as Yasiel Puig, Pederson and Seager.

“He’s probably a year away, because he’s so young,” Blest said. “But he just flew through the minors as an 18 and 19-year-old last year. You might find people who say he’s the top pitching prospect in baseball.”

UriasThe Dodgers have built up a great farm system. The Twins, Cubs and Astros have also been solid the last number of years. All three still have solid prospects coming up the ranks: Twins – who have outfielder Max Kepler and pitcher Jose Berrios; Cubs – outfielder Kyle Schwarber, infielder Javier Baez and second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ; and Astros – first baseman A.J. Reed.

There are a few other teams in the mix for the best minor league talent.

“I would still say Chicago (Cubs) is one of the best systems and Texas,” Blest said. “I know the Yankees, sometimes their guys are overrated, but they’ve spent a lot of money in the international market the last couple years. … I think Minnesota is one of those systems that keeps finding good international talent and building through the draft as well.”

Along with Moncada, the Red Sox have some talent in 19-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers and 2015 first-round pick outfielder Andrew Benintendi.

A couple of players customers of Loyd’s store in Orlando have been asking about are the Braves’ Dansby Swanson and the Astros’ Alex Bregman. The duo went Nos. 1 and 2 in last June’s draft.

Prospecting as popular as ever
Loyd gets plenty of people coming into his shop in search of the next big thing in the majors. Prospectors have many opportunities to latch onto young talent before they pop.

“People open up all these Bowman Chrome, Bowman Draft, all they have to do is hit one of these orange or red, and people pay a lot of money,” Loyd said. “The thing about baseball that’s different from football and basketball, within a year or two years we know 95 percent of the time if these guys are going to be good or they’re going to be cut and not going to be worth it (in basketball and football). With baseball, some of these guys may take two, three, four years in the minors and they come up and they’re tearing it up. You can hold onto the baseball guys, you don’t have to get rid of them early on. Next thing you know, they go up.”

RoblesWith such a good group of young players featured in the 2015 card products, Blest has been surprised to see a new trend.

“For us, you’d usually see a drop off after the World Series in baseball cards sales,” Blest said. “But I seemed to notice it never really stopped for us throughout the winter. All the 2015 baseball products that had that rookie content just continued to sell. You might get some end-of-year releases that don’t perform as well because they come out after the World Series, but everything was strong this year. Right up until the 2016 products, we’re still seeing good sales on the 2015 products with all those prospects.”

Prospectors are stocking up on who they think will strike it rich on the major league stage.

“When you see a crop like last year come up, it does give people an opportunity to maybe get a return on their investment,” Blest said. “I would say it’s been that way for probably the last five to 10 years, there’s always been that prospecting element. But the way the guys move so quickly now through these systems – and I think that’s part of it, too. Major League Baseball is trying to copy the blueprint that the NFL has where they’re televising the draft now and people know who these players are a lot sooner than they had in years past.”

Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at gregabates@gmail.com.

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