Hobby Musings: What will 2018 bring with baseball cards? – A few days ago, I had the chance to catch up with Rich Mueller about his thoughts on the 2018 trading card season. For more perspective on the topic, I caught up with Beckett’s Ryan Cracknell and Topps’ Susan Lulgjuraj. The following interviews were conducted via email.
KS: As we sit today, how would you assess the state of the baseball card market?
RC: Overall, it’s looking very healthy. Baseball has been blessed the past few years with several superstar rookies. Honestly, heading into last season, it looked like it would be solid but on the same level as 2015 with Bryant, Correa and company. But then Aaron Judge happened, which I’m pretty sure shot past everyone’s expectations. And just as Judge was heating up, Cody Bellinger came along. Then Rhys Hoskins to close out the season. The past few years have built some strong momentum that appears to be continuing. Coupling that, we’re seeing a broad mix of distribution between hobby, retail and online channels. All products might not be for everyone and there are some misses, but overall, this is a strong market in a lot of regards.
SL: This is one of the most exciting times I’ve seen for as long I have been in the hobby. Long-time collectors are enjoying ripping packs while new collectors enter the hobby every day. It’s been an exciting time to be a collector.
KS: One of the big offseason acquisitions was the Angels getting Shohei Ohtani. Being the new shiny prospect so to speak, there was a big early demand for his cards, especially his autographs. A subpar spring seems to have dampened enthusiasm on him a little bit. Overall though, what kind of collector response have you seen for his stuff so far?
RC: Anytime a player has cards selling for thousands before they play a game of pro ball stateside is worth taking note of. Will they stay this strong? Probably not. But they’re still going to be healthy no matter what. Although Ohtani is still proving himself in MLB, he came into the league a superstar. Even with a season-ending injury next week, there’s a market for his cards. It just might not be the one we see in local shops in the United States. With his first few cards, especially the Topps Heritage autographs, there was a lot of speculation. There still is. But with every ensuing release and new autograph, there’s more on the market. And it’s going to take some spectacular performances to maintain that momentum. Realistically, prices will drop. They’ll still be strong but the thousands that some cards were fetching initially isn’t sustainable. And that’s fine. More autographs mean more collectors have a chance to land one. With Ohtani we’re in unchartered territory. His two-way approach is exciting. I get a similar vibe to the glory days of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. One big thing to consider is that because Ohtani is splitting his time between two positions, it’s going to be tough for him to break established records and rack up gawdy stats even in a best-case scenario. I think taking a deep breath about the cards and enjoying things as they unfold on the season is an approach I’ll be taking.
SL: Since his MLB debut, the interest in his cards are very high. Spring Training doesn’t always tell the story as it’s a time to work on things and make adjustments. His TOPPS NOW cards have done extremely well, selling nearly 9,000 copies of his MLB debut card, which included cards in English and Kanji. Collectors are delighted to add cards of Shohei Ohtani to their collection.
KS: Another hot prospect this season is the Braves’ Ronald Acuna. He’ll be in the minors for a few weeks after not making the Opening Day roster. What kind of market are you seeing for him?
RC: It’s already huge. At this point, it’s going to take a Judge-ian debut for a lot of those values to be sustained. That said, the kid looks to be very ready.
SL: Like many top prospects, collectors are drawn to them for their potential. Acuna has been similar to other highly rated prospects we have seen over the years because he has the raw talent that could make him a star.
KS: Aside from Acuna and Ohtani, which newcomers that could debut this season should collectors be keeping an eye?
RC: I don’t do a lot of deep prospecting and generally notice them not long before they’re MLB-ready. The prospects I think of, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez, are already well established in the hobby and not much of a surprise.
SL: We don’t love to name names because it’s like picking a favorite child. But, we know there are lots of fans waiting for the call up of players like Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez. We won’t see him yet, but Vladimir Guerrero Jr., has certainly been exciting to watch.
RC: Again, prospecting isn’t my specialty. I think the best advice would be to keep up with Baseball America and the backs of Bowman cards to see who’s progressing and playing for the more popular teams.
SL: It really depends on what collectors are looking for. There are different ways to collect prospect cards, so the best thing to do would be for collectors to figure out what they are looking for in a card. Check out prospect sheets and rankings, and find the players that appeal to you and collect their Bowman cards.
KS: No matter what, this year’s rookie class will have a hard time topping last year with the likes of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger. If you had to make a pick, which second-year player do you think will have the best trading card year?
RC: It’s going to be tough for either of them to grow any further. That said, Aaron Judge is fast becoming the most marketable player in baseball–if he isn’t already. That’s going to give him an even broader appeal than he already has in a lot of ways. But even then, if you’re looking at it from strictly a price perspective, how much higher can his key cards go?
SL: Between the two, Aaron Judge will still have a good year on cards because he’s in an incredible lineup in New York, especially with the Giancarlo Stanton. But Bellinger won’t be far behind.
RC: Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez come to mind. I’m not a Yankees fan, but they’ve put together something special. Add Judge to the mix and that’s a powerful group of hitters on a wildly popular team. With Stanton coming over from one of the smallest teams in the hobby to the biggest, he’s finally going to get the attention he’s deserved for a few years. Sanchez had a great 2016 but was hurt for a chunk of last year. And when he was healthy, he was in Judge’s shadow in a lot of ways. Both of these guys are hardly surprises, though. Sticking with the Yankees, Tyler Austin might be a bit more of a dark horse. If New York is contending for a World Series, which I think is a very real possibility this year, there are going to be lots of stars in the lineup much like things were when Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and company were dominating the postseason. It’d be nice to see Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt finally get some wider love in the hobby. They’re stars but the buzz surrounding them and their spot in the hobby doesn’t match up.
SL: Did we mention Giancarlo Stanton already? His cards could see a higher collectability when he performs extremely well in New York.
KS: Most of baseball’s notable stars past and present are well-represented in cardboard and autographs. That being said, who is one player you feel is underserved who could make a big hobby spike with more ink on the market?
RC: I think 2018 is the year where we really start to get nostalgic about Albert Pujols’ career. As he closes in on 3,000 hits, look for things to really pick up. He’s been a consistent signer throughout his career but never in any major quantity. Ichiro heading back to Seattle is another nice bookend. I’m not sure there’ll be a major spike given the strong prices everything he touches already has. But it’s going to mean more Mariners cards for Ichiro and that’s a good thing. Topps has done a good job of being able to use Ichiro’s various teams for a couple of years, which should help provide some balance. Another name that’s due to make a comeback in the hobby is Miguel Cabrera. His best days might be behind him and Detroit isn’t likely to do much this season, but here’s another player who doesn’t have a ton of autographs but has proven himself deserving of first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame based on his play on the field.
SL: Not sure, but with TOPPS NOW, you never know who can have an autographed card after a big moment!
KS: Looking ahead a bit, by the time it’s all said and done, what do you think will end up being the biggest story of the 2018 baseball trading card year?
RC: Front and center — Shohei Ohtani. The big sale — Whether or not the PSA 9 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle knocks off the T206 Honus Wagner as the most expensive baseball card of all-time. The feel-good story — The nostalgia-driven market for late ’80s and early ’90s wax that’s continuing to grow. Last year, $10 boxes seemed to be among the most popular items at the National. I expect that to continue even further this summer. The one to watch — whether the rumors of a potential Topps sale turn out to be true. If that happens, it will send waves, not ripples, throughout the hobby no matter who the owner becomes. Then again, it could turn out to be just a rumor and a nothing story.
SL: The Topps Living Set is a great program developed by the brand team. Three new cards are featured every week and the players will not be offered again unless they switch teams. The program will live on for years. Like TOPPS NOW, it’s another innovative way to collect unique cards. Each card also features original artwork on the 1953 Topps Baseball design. The artwork is created by sports artist Mayumi Seto.
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