Help is on the Way for Rookie Driven Sports Card Industry

In the sports card industry, for better or worse, it's all about the rookie card. Sales of products are driven by the hot new guy on the block. In 2013, I don't think it's a reach to say sales have slumped for many retailers. Key rookie cards of Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, and Yasiel Puig don't quite measure up to the last couple years of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and many others.

Temporary help could be on the way for sports card retailers. 2014 looks to have a very strong NFL and NBA Draft classes.  In the case of the NBA, it could be one of the best crops in many years. MLB could see an new influx of talent which will boost sales. The Chicago Cubs have four very promising prospects who could change the fortunes at Wrigley and retailers.  The Midwest is a hotbed for sports collectibles and I can only imagine how thirsty Cubs fans will be if some of their key prospects turn into stars. Sports card retailers could see an uptick in sales if things break the right way.

 

 

Baseball
NOTE: These players are not "ranked" in any particular order

Albert Almora - Cubs
Athletic, confident, table setter type of player. Was flashing all kinds of skills when I saw him at the 2013 Arizona Fall League. Would make a spectacular catch in the outfield then come up and hit a triple the next inning. Saw him dive over a railing and into the bullpen to try and make a play on a ball. When it took him a second to get up, I'm sure Theo Epstein's heart skipped a beat. Fear not, this looks like a tough kid who plays all out, all the time. The games I saw him, he was a gracious and willing signer for fans. Took extra time to make sure people were getting his autograph. He signed 12 cards for one fan in attendance.  

Kris Bryant - Cubs
Saw Bryant play in college a little bit but never got to observe him real close until the 2013 AFL. You want Kris Bryant's autograph? He smiled and gave it to you. Seems incredibly humble, kind, and gracious. Could make a lot of money in another profession, but luckily for Cubs fans they have a kid who can swing the bat. Very short, direct route approach to hitting a baseball.

He doesn't have some big kick step to generate power. He spreads his long legs wide apart and smacks the baseball. Wow. Haven't seen another player who can hit with power like that in my time watching minor league games. Will lose some of his limited athleticism as he gets older. Will need to hit for average to be a truly dynamic player. He should have no problem running into lots of HR's and doubles even if he never becomes a big time star.

Javier Baez - Cubs
Only saw Baez during the 2012 Arizona Fall League, and in 2013 he wasn't on the Cubs roster for AFL play. From what I recall from last year, he was one of the youngest guys in the league. Until I saw Addison Russell play everyday in 2013, I think Baez had the fastest pair of hands hitting a baseball I'd seen. Baez gambles and has a lot more power than Russell which makes Baez a somewhat risky boom or bust player. Javier hit 37 HR's in 130 games in 2013 so it's been pretty much boom for now.

Jorge Soler - Cubs
This guy really intrigues me and I wish I zeroed in on him a little more at the 2013 AFL. Doesn't have a crazy long swing but has good gap power, which could easily turn into HR power. They list him as 6-4, but I actually think he is a little shorter than that. Which for me is a good thing, because tall guys tend to strike out too much for my taste. I like how he got his hands in position to hit, and it felt like he was comfortable going the other way.

Like Almora and Bryant, Soler took what seemed like extra time to sign autographs at the games I was at for fans. In fact, there was one game where all three Cubs players stayed out and signed for what seemed like a long time, while every single other player on their AFL team went to go prepare for the game in the locker room. I don't know if Soler, Almora and Bryant were told to sign for fans by someone in the Cubs organization, maybe so, but that doesn't really matter. All three are big time prospects and for them to sign baseballs on the sweet spot and be nice to fans was great to see.

Mason Williams - Yankees
I'd rather have any of the four Cubs prospects over Williams, but that doesn't make him a scrub. Mason doesn't have overwhelming stats in the minors, but he is athletic and has a feel for the game. He moves his head and body too much during his swing which is probably why he only hit .245 in 117 games in 2013. He'd lunge at balls out of the strike zone and needs to tighten it up a little bit.

Byron Buxton - Twins
First and only time I see Buxton at the 2014 AFL in person he strikes out 4 times. Not as bad as it looked though. I think on 2 of them he worked it to a 3-2 count and showed really good patience for a 19 year old kid playing against higher level competition. I don't remember him swinging at a first pitch so he was definitely there to work on his game. His first at bat he hit a little chopper that he legged into a double. He looks very thin and skinny, but he does have buff arms. Should grow into his body as he gets older. Has very good speed, which he showed off on the double. I see an Adam Jones or Justin Upton, but it's probably way too early to say what type of player he'll be. I'd be stunned if he played in the big leagues before 2015.

Addison Russell - A's
Saw Russell play the entire season for the Stockton Ports. Incredible bat speed and quick wrists. The bat speed may not translate to big power numbers, but he won't be a singles hitter. Plays good defense at SS for his age. Sometimes his throws will slice a little bit, and he may not have as much range as an elite SS, but that is nitpicking. He'll end up in the big leagues at some point, and at the very least should be a decent-good player. Russell would sign autographs everyday in Stockton. Sometimes he would cut off the guys who asked him everyday, but that was rare. I didn't see Russell sign autographs at the Arizona Fall League games I went to even when asked by fans. Doesn't downgrade Russell in my mind at all, just thought it was interesting.

Carlos Correa - Astros
Somehow I ended up in Iowa for 3 days to watch Correa and fellow #1 pick Mark Appel play for the Quad Cities River Bandits against the Burlington Bees (Angels). Growing up in California, Iowa can be a culture shock trip. Personally, I really enjoyed my time there and liked the slow pace, laid back Iowa lifestyle. I couldn't live there (think about all the things California is famous for) but I'd definitely go back.

Anyways, Correa is an interesting player. Very tall, basketball player type body. Huge hands. I just remember his hands being huge. Is he a SS? Maybe. He might pull a Manny Machado and move to 3rd base. Correa made one of the best defensive plays I'd seen in a long time during one of the games. It was a fly ball to left field that I think the LF should of got. Correa made up for it by ranging back at full speed to catch the ball over his shoulder in what seemed like mid-left field. There was a runner on 3rd with less then 2 outs and he tagged to try and score. Correa going back at full speed caught the ball, stopped on a dime and threw a one hop perfect strike to home. The runner was going to be out by 20 feet. Somehow the catcher misplayed the absolute perfect, I mean perfect, one hop throw and let the ball go by him.  While that play ended up a zero on the stat sheet for Correa, it made my trip to Iowa worth it.

At the plate Correa is still finding his game it seemed. His swing is a bit longer, mostly because he is a tall guy. He doesn't have the quick wrists and bat speed that Russell has. What could make him a more dynamic player than Russell is his possible power and if he can maintain at SS or be elite at 3B.  I should get to see Correa play a lot next season if things go my way.

George Springer - Astros
Perhaps because Springer is on the Astors he doesn't get as much attention as other prospects, but he has torched the minors aside from the big strikeout numbers. The strikeouts might worry some people, but Springer is not a lumbering dude. He is an athletic play maker who can do just about everything on a baseball diamond. I didn't see Springer play in 2013, but saw him a lot in 2012 for Lancaster in the California League. I must say, he doesn't look like a guy who can crush as many HR's as he has. Granted, he plays in some very favorable hitting environments, but so will Houston when he gets there.

Billy Hamilton - Reds
I know Billy has gotten called up and played for the Reds toward the back half of 2013. He still is the most exciting player I've ever seen play minor league baseball. I would pay so much money to go back in time and watch him play again. I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark with all 750 people in the stands and watch him get on base and run. He probably won't put up Hall of Fame numbers in his career, and many will knock his hitting but they are overlooking the ways he impacts a game by just getting on base one time. Run Billy run......

Football

Johnny Manziel - QB
Love him or hate him, the honest truth about Manziel is that he is compelling and his football cards will be hot. He probably won't be the first QB drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft but nobody will have more hype and attention. Manziel has game. He will need to be put into an offense tailored to fit his skills. Also, he is on the skinny and small side. I worry that he will take some huge hits and that will shatter his sky high confidence. He could turn into a timid player if he is scared out there, which would expose his flaws.

He already has a penchant for signing autographs..... and getting paid for it. I almost wish he would snub the NFLPA, Topps, and Panini and do his own thing in regards to licensing his autograph. But that is a story for another time and is something that probably isn't plausible in this day and age.

Teddy Bridgewater - QB
Teddy! This is a very skilled passer, who flashes accuracy and arm strength. Watching Bridgewater you just get the sense he has a real feel for the game and how to play QB. Could be the #1 overall pick in the 2014 Draft. Seems to get 4-5 TD's a game for Louville and really makes it look easy. The price for his rookie cards out of the gate should rival Manziel.

Marcus Mariota - QB
I watch Oregon play a lot. Mariota has all sorts of weapons at his disposal and the offense they run in Oregon is top notch. He does make mistakes out there. He isn't a prototypical QB in terms of his footwork and will need to tighten up his fundamentals at the next level. Many liken him to 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick and it's a very fair comparison. He has the same body type and similar athletic skills. I'd say Kaepernick has a stronger arm and is much more efficient throwing from the pocket. If Mariota puts in the work, he could be very good. It all comes down to which team drafts him and what type of offense they have him run.

Brett Hundley - QB
Haven't seen Hundley as much as Mariota. Hundley is projected as a top 10 pick. I'd have to watch him more closely to get a feel for his game. He is athletic and can run. He's got to be at least as good as E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith right?

DeAnthony Thomas - RB
One of the most electrifying players in all of college football. Has it stuck on the turbo button and is as fast as a lightning bolt.  Got hurt in the 4th game of the year against Cal on the opening kickoff and hasn't played since. He isn't a player who will get a ton of touches in the NFL because he is a small guy.  Will he turn into Dexter McCluster or be more like Darren Sproles? Either way, his cards will sell well initially out of the gate.  

Brandin Cooks - WR
I have no idea where he projects to be drafted, if at all, if he comes out in the 2014 NFL Draft. But good lord, I've watched this guy play a ton and he seems to catch everything. Sticky glue for hands. Plays bigger than 5-10 frame. Is from Stockton, CA......... so you know he's got to be a tough dude and doesn't play scared.

Mike Evans - WR
Is a huge guy and is sneaky fast. Long tatted up arms that make him a red zone target. Can beat guys deep though, which probably means he'll be a 1st round pick. Is one of Manziel's toys to work with at Texas A&M. Seems to disappear during some games, but that could be because Manziel is really good at spreading the ball around to the open guy.

Basketball

For several different reasons I will be watching a lot of college basketball this year. Basketball is actually my best sport in terms of knowledge since I played organized hoop growing up. I did not play football or baseball. I can watch a guy and see if he's good at basketball. The basketball card market has been somewhat weak the last couple years, even with a "double rookie class" in 2012-13 Panini products. Look for things to change dramatically in 2014-15.  I've heard this will be one of the best draft classes in more than a decade. Many NBA teams might try and "tank" this season with hopes of landing a high lottery pick.

Some of the names to look for are: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon but the list goes on from there. I've never heard basketball analysts so giddy about this years college basketball season. I'm crossing my fingers once I get a look at some of these players that their game matches the hype. Hopefully I can come back and shed some light on some of these prospects once the college season begins.

 

 

Ryan @SportsCardNews