May 12, 2010

Billy Butler and Prospect Expectations

Presented is a 2007 Bowman card of Billy Butler. If this were 2010 and he hadn't yet reached the majors, the chrome version of this card could be selling for $5.00 or more this week (and probably only this week).

He doesn't have quite the pedigree of other top prospects that people are going crazy for in this release of 2010 Bowman this week like Jason Heyward or Steve Strasburg or Donovan Tate and the like. Where does hype end and reality begin?

Billy Butler ranked 25th on the Baseball America Top 100 in 2007. Other recent prospects at 25 include Troy Tulowitzki (2006), Jordan Schafer (2008), Brian Matusz (2009), and Kyle Drabeck (2010). So there is a reasonable expectation that at this ranking that the player will become a contributor at the major league level and quite possibly an all-star at some point.

At that's exactly the point. Rankings are expectations. And we, as card collectors, can get sucked in and stuck in the vortex of expectations and spin with them for years until the bottom falls out (even if you're not a prospector).

Recent example: Andy Marte, he was a top 15 prospect for three years running (2004-2006). He had a high prospect pedigree in other words. He was in two highly regarded organizations: Atlanta and Boston, and he never made it to the majors and contributed significantly. His cards, however, stayed at high levels for many years with the hope that he would become a great MLB player.

A more recent example: Alex Gordon (#2 prospect in 2007 and teammate of Billy Butler). His autos from Exquisite and Bowman and the like were still very popular and expensive until last year because of that ranking and the expectations it bestowed. From a performance standpoint, he was outshone by his less heralded prospect brethren, Billy Butler, whose cards were not expensive and who accomplished something as a hitter very few have done (greater than 50 doubles in a season when less than 24 year olds.)

Yes, Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg are the top two prospects now (and deservedly so). But at this point, I would say to not buy into their cards at this high level of cost. The only one who has maintained such a high cost after entering the card market at this level has been Albert Pujols. Heyward's profile is pretty well impeccable as a prospect (age, power, plate discipline). He could be even be a Miguel Cabrera type (with more fielding prowess).

Even at a perennial all-star's production, the hype will die down for the next big prospect to come along and the price of the cards will drop. And if some misfortune befalls his career then the price will still drop. The prospect of Strasburg's continued hobby success is even more precarious. Basically, he has to be Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay combined to match the hype accompanying his cards.

What do you expect from these prospects? These are not long-term investments at this point and price. Enjoy their playing days though, they have the potential to be great.

If any of them can match Billy Butler's production (124 OPS+ at the age of 23) in terms of MLB contributions, well, do you think the hype would increase?

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