When Prospecting Goes Wrong
Matt Weiters, Matt LaPorta, Mat Gamel, David Price, Gordon Beckham, Andrew McCutchen, Tommy Hanson.
Holy cow, the 2009 baseball season has been a who's who of top MLB prospects. Do the minor leagues even exist anymore? I'd wouldn't be surprised if they were running out of players. I can't remember a more active prospect influx all at once. Sure, there have been big time mid-season callups in recent years—Evan Longoria, Jay Bruce and Ryan Braun come to mind, but nothing like this.
With all of the buzz the question itself presents, what really happens when Prospecting goes wrong? Perhaps that's not the question, but it has the catchiest Fox News-style tagline so that's what I'm going to go with. You see, I live in Baltimore and have experienced the assumption of these demi-gods first hand. About a week ago, Matt Wieters—Babe Ruth in Catcher's Gear, Lord of The Yard, Savior of the franchise—made his debut for the Orioles. He went 0-for-4
Therein lies the problem. Let's examine the economics of prospecting for a moment, shall we? It's really just your standard “buy low-sell high" stock strategy. People want to get in on the ground floor of a player's future stardom, buying cards, autographs and memorabilia before they hit the big time. Now take a step back for a moment and let's look at the ceiling. Best case scenario=Hall of Fame. Worst case scenario=burnout. Here is where your valuation comes in handy. On the day of his debut, a 2007 Donruss Elite Extra Edition autographed rookie card sold for $350. The card was numbered to 799, but was graded as a BGS 9.5. A BGS 9 sold for $200 on the same day. Remember, best case scenario is that this player becomes a Hall of Famer. Over the same time period, the most expensive Cal Ripken Jr. Card sold was for $225. It was an autographed 2004 Studio, numbered to 10 and graded a BGS 9. Does something seem wrong here? Actual Hall of Famer, rarer card, same grade goes for $225. Hyped prospect goes for $200—how much could that card possibly appreciate? Even worse, on June 2nd—just four days after Wieters' debut, that same 2007 Donruss EEE BGS 9 sold for $91.99.
This leads me to conclude one thing. Buy the prospect, sell the hype. This is your standard “buy the rumor, sell the news" philosophy that the stock market has experienced for years. Why all of the stock market analogies? Look into it and this is the same game, my friend. Cards are stock in a player. The fluctuate based on performance and anticipated future growth.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the dangerous, speculative game of Prospecting has one guaranteed sales point: The callup. Sell at the call-up and you have no downside risk. Of course, there is a chance that the card could appreciate further, with a hot streak to start the season (Jay Bruce), an All Star Season (Evan Longoria) or sustained excellent play (Ryan Braun). However, by the time the callup occurs, the Hype Machine has already influenced the market to anticipate these events into the price of the cards. On his debut date, Matt Wieters was assumed to be an instant impact, all-star, franchise player. That's what people were buying and paying Hall of Fame prices for it.
My advice? Relax. Buy a prospect early, sell at the call-up. Believe in him? Buy and sell the ebbs and flows of his career or, buy at a dip and hope for the best. Prospecting is a dangerous game, a little too dangerous for me, and it is so easy to get caught up in the hype. I'll take my Hall of Famers and fan favorites for that price, thank you very much. Still, I hope that Matt Wieters can get hot quickly—I've got three pairs of ticket stubs from his MLB debut and first hit games that are my ticket to a sweeter life. Fingers crossed.
Dan Taylor is the Author of Grand Cards (grandcards.blogspot.com) and has given up on this crop of prospects and focusing on Stevie Williams, SP: Marshall Elementary School 4'3, 85 lbs and a wicked 51 MPH fastball.