From Julio Rodriguez to Grayson Rodriguez, here’s what baseball card collectors need to know.
In the past, attempting to invest in trading cards for the long term was more about betting on the trading card industry as a whole. But over the last year, with cards becoming increasingly popular as alternative investment assets, growing numbers of collectors are on the hunt for a particular superstar they can invest in on the ground floor.
While “prospecting” has become popular across every major sport, baseball offers collectors a unique opportunity to speculate on players earlier than any other. A holy grail for collectors is the Bowman series — think of them as a rookie card’s rookie card — featuring autographed prospect cards of hundreds of minor leaguers.
Last August, Mike Trout‘s 2009 Bowman Chrome Superfractor 1/1 sold for $3.9 million, sending countless collectors on the hunt to find the next future superstar. This kind of speculation makes the Bowman prospect cards so valuable: 18-year-old Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez has yet to take his first professional at-bat, but his Bowman Chrome Auto is commanding upwards of $1,500.
Dominguez may have have all the tools that scouts dream of, but rather than betting on a player we haven’t seen on a professional diamond yet, let’s identify five prospects who should be on every card investor’s radar as the minor league season gets underway.
OF, Seattle Mariners
MLB PIPELINE RANKING: No. 5
Julio Rodriguez is not only one of the hottest hitters in minor league ball, but he has delivered at every single stop in his young career so far. Still just 20 years old, J-Rod sports a .324 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage with 22 home runs in 155 games.
With baseball increasingly dominated by the “three true outcomes” — home run, strikeout, or walk — Rodriguez offers a rare blend of power and feel to hit. Rodriguez boasts a 19% strikeout rate, nearly 5% better than the league average, and recently boasted a nine-game extra-base hit streak that included four straight with a home run.
Rodriguez is by no means a sleeper at this point, as he’s universally ranked among the top 15 prospects in baseball and already in the fold with the Dominican Republic national team. Since he has the rare balance of a high floor and MVP potential, the 6-foot-3 outfielder’s 2019 Bowman Chrome Auto card is expensive, commanding around $1,300 as a PSA 10. The base version of his PSA 10 Bowman Chrome card sells for around $100, however, and is a great investment if you don’t want to break the bank — the two Bowmans typically appreciate in proportion to one another.
Rodriguez has the most expensive card on this list, but still makes the cut because there is so much more room for his card to run. Current No. 1 overall MLB prospect Wander Franco’s card comes at a price of $3,600, and with Franco due to be called up by the Tampa Bay Rays soon, there is a legitimate chance that Julio Rodriguez could be baseball’s top prospect by the time the season is over.
If and when that happens, $1,300 will feel like a steal.
C, New York Mets
MLB PIPELINE RANKING: No. 38
Francisco Alvarez’s debut in the minor leagues was delayed by a year, which gave his perceived value time to appreciate based on sheer anticipation. Alvarez boasts everything you could want out of a catching prospect. As a 17-year-old, Alvarez tore up rookie-level pitching, leaving scouts eager to see how he would hit at the higher levels.
600 days later, the 19-year-old catcher looks way beyond his years behind the plate, with advanced blocking skills, a great arm, and respectability as a pitch-caller and receiver. On top of that, Alvarez can swing the bat.
So far, the Mets organization’s top prospect has been well worth the wait, smashing his way to a ridiculous .448 average through his first 10 games in Single-A while only striking out a minuscule 7.5% of the time.
That puts him in some seriously elite company.
While 10 games is a tiny sample size, it’s more about what Alvarez has shown behind the plate as well as at the plate. His bat speed is elite, and his high baseball IQ as a catcher translates well to his hitting, reflected in his high walk and contact rates.
Offense comes at a premium for the catching position at the Big League level, as the most importance placed on defense and durability. Put simply, if you are strong as a backstop and can swing the bat a well, you’ve got a fine chance to become one of the very best in baseball.
Of course, Alvarez still has a lot to prove, but a catcher with this set of tools is hard to find. When you blend his maturity and approach to the game with his natural talent, we could be looking at one of the better catchers in baseball in a few years.
Alvarez’s 2020 Bowman Chrome Auto is selling for $150 ungraded, but it is likely to be quickly on the rise — remember that he’s just a teenager. As he rises through the minors and gets closer and closer to the Show, his card price is sure to follow suit. Playing in a gigantic market like New York won’t hurt, either.
2B, Pittsburgh Pirates
MLB PIPELINE RANKING: No. 33
The No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft , Nick Gonzales may not be the most imposing player on the field at 5-foot-9 and 195 lbs., but you would never know it from the power he puts behind the ball. After impressing in MLB spring training, he earned a High-A assignment to start the year.
While Gonzales lacks the power that Julio Rodriguez offers, he is as pure of a 21-year-old hitter as you’ll find. His compact swing has drawn comparisons to Mike Trout and his hands are a blur as whips the bat through the zone, making it look like a toothpick thanks to his elite bat speed.
Scouting has always been predicated on tools and projection, but sometimes, there are players who can just flat-out hit.
Nick Gonzales is one of them.
The Pirates second base prospect put together one of the most prolific collegiate careers in recent memory, hitting .399 with a 1.249 OPS and 37 home runs in 126 games at New Mexico State. A former walk-on, Gonzales’ skeptics expressed concern about his level of play and many wrote him off as a potential top 10 consideration for the draft. Gonzales quickly silenced his critics with a dazzling season in the the fabled Cape Cod League, where he snatched up Player of the Year honors up against top collegiate talent.
Gonzales has the recipe to climb through the minors really quickly. His 2020 Bowman Chrome Auto has a price tag of around $150, but as a prospect who could be the first in his draft class to break into the MLB, a nice return on investment of his card could be realized pretty quickly.
His elite feel to hit and sneaky power give him the ceiling of a .300 hitter who can leave the yard 30 times a season, and he has a higher chance of reaching his ceiling than the average prospect.
1B, Boston Red Sox
MLB PIPELINE RANKING: No. 34
The first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2018 has been a baseball phenom since he was barely a teenager. Triston Casas became the youngest baseball player to commit to a Power 5 school when he verbally committed to the University of Miami in eighth grade. He would never step foot on campus in Coral Gables, however, as he was selected 26th overall by the Sox and cashed in a $2.6 million signing bonus.
Typically, it is hard for players hyped up starting in their early teenage years to live up to expectations, but so far, Casas has impressed. Casas missed all of 2018 with a thumb injury, but returned in 2019 to slug 20 home runs in 120 games with an .830 OPS despite being one of the younger players in Class-A ball.
After performing at a high level at Boston’s alternate training site last year, Casas earned a Double-A assignment, where again he is 3 years younger than his competition. The age gap hasn’t been a problem for the power-hitting first baseman: He’s hitting .341 with a .951 OPS and 3 home runs through 11 games.
At 6-foot-4, 252 lbs., Casas can really do some damage to baseballs, but despite his long limbs and strength, Casas has great barrel control and an ability to drive the ball to all fields. Continuing the trend of players listed, Casas is another player who does not sacrifice contact for power in a sport that has seen its strikeout rate rise for 16 straight seasons at the highest level.
Casas’ 2018 Bowman Chrome Auto card sells for around $120 raw with tons of room to grow, as the kid has the kind of offensive ability that will play well at Fenway Park. The short porch in right field is great for any left-handed hitter, and his easy power to the opposite field makes it easy to imagine him peppering the shallow green monster in left.
Most importantly, since he’s been in the spotlight for so long, Casas has the poise and flair to become a fan favorite in Boston, which is always good news for the value of a card. Consider snagging Casas now before Red Sox fans tout him as the next Freddie Freeman.
RHP, Baltimore Orioles
MLB PIPELINE RANKING: No. 21
The only pitcher on our list, Grayson Rodriguez is as explosive of an arm as you’ll find. The 6-foot-5 right-handed flamethrower heard his name called 15 selections ahead of Casas in the 2018 MLB Draft, going 11th to the Orioles out of high school.
Rodriguez was a late bloomer in high school, not emerging on draft radars until his senior season and his rapid development has continued through his first few years of professional baseball. The 21-year-old pitcher averages 95 MPH on his fastball and can hit 99 frequently. While so many young pitchers are throwing extremely hard nowadays, Rodriguez produces high-level velocity with smooth, easily repeatable mechanics built for the long haul.
Where Rodriguez really separates himself, however, is his secondary stuff. His change-up, slider, and curveball all look like potential plus pitches, and he commands them well. Big-bodied pitchers with elite velocity don’t often show a great feel for a changeup like Rodriguez does, a pitch which that’s the hardest of all to hit when used properly.
After reading that scouting report, it is probably not a surprise to you that Rodriguez has carved up minor league hitters. The Orioles’ top pitching prospect owns a 2.36 ERA in 125.2 professional innings while striking out a whopping 172 batters. So far this season, G-Rod has punched out a ridiculous 23 batters in just 12 innings in high-A.
Consider that, and then consider that Rodriguez’s 2018 Bowman Chrome Auto only sells for $45 ungraded.
With the ace potential the power right-hander offers, that kind of deal is too good to pass on.