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Investing In International Cards of Future Major League Stars

During our collecting journeys, sometimes it pays to look “outside the box” when looking for value. We’ve explored minor league pre-rookie cards on this site before, but for some very special players, there’s another form of pre-rookie card worth exploring. 

What are international cards?

In this context, international cards refer to cards of players who appeared in leagues outside the United States prior to making their debut in the major leagues. In most cases, this involves either the Japanese or Korean leagues, although in future seasons we could see players and cards from any country that has a professional league where cards are produced

Check out prices for Japanese BBM cards on eBay 

Historical examples of international cards

Here are a few examples of international cards from the last few decades. 

Hideo Nomo

In 1995, Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo exploited a loophole to jump from the Japanese Leagues to the MLB, and took the US by storm. Nomo, who turned 26 in August of that season, led the National League in strikeouts on his way to being named an All-Star and National League Rookie of the Year

As Nomomania swept the baseball world, people began to realize that Nomo had some cards produced in Japan. Remember, eBay didn’t launch until later that year and PSA had just started grading cards in 1991. Interest in Nomo’s Japanese cards, when they could be found, was very strong. 

His first appearance was in 1990 on the 1990 Takara Kintetsu Buffaloes #11 card. Only 31 examples have been graded by PSA, but 25 of those are PSA 10s. 

Nomo’s Japanese cards still demand a premium, when you can find them…despite Nomo’s career peaking fairly early. He continues to be seen as a pioneer for Japanese and other Far East players coming to play in MLB. 

CardTotal PSA PopPSA 10 PopRecent Sales
1990 Takara Kintetsu Buffaloes #113125NA
1991 BBM All-Star Game #404201PSA 8 = $95
hideo nomo japanese card

Ichiro Suzuki

In 2001, 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki made the move from Japan to the Seattle Mariners, and like Nomo before him, took the league by storm. Ichiro won the 2001 American League Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in his first season in the US. Unlike Nomo, Ichiro didn’t fade, and put up one of the finest careers of the 21st century. 

By the time Ichiro came along, eBay and the internet had revolutionized card collecting, and demand for his Japanese offerings was strong, and remains so to this day. His Japanese rookie cards appeared in 1993, although all of Ichiro’s Japanese cards maintain in demand. 

CardTotal PSA PopPSA 10 PopRecent Sales
1993 Takara Orix BlueWave #5114185PSA 10 = $2,600
1993 BBM #239998126PSA 9 = $600
ichiro japanese cards

Hideki Matsui

Hideki Matsui made the leap to the majors in 2003, and despite being older than prior players making the jump at 29, played in parts of 10 big league seasons, mostly with the New York Yankees.

He finished 2nd in the ROY voting his first season, and hit .282/.360/.462 for his career with a .822 OPS and 118 OPS+. He hit 175 home runs in the majors, which when combined with his Japanese total, puts him over 500 career home runs. 

Matsui’s first Japanese card appeared on was in the same 1993 sets that Ichiro debuted in. While his cards aren’t as in demand as Ichiro’s, they’re still strong sellers. 

CardTotal PSA PopPSA 10 PopRecent Sales
1993 BBM #423671115PSA 10 = $225-400
hideki matsui japanese cards

Daisuke Matsuzaka

Dice-K, as the media quickly dubbed him, made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox in 2007. He went 14-12 with a 4.40 ERA (108 ERA+) in 32 starts and finished 4th in the ROY voting. 

daisuke matsuzaka

He added two more wins in the playoffs as the Red Sox were World Champs. In 2008, Matsuzaka went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting. 

It was all downhill from there, however, as injuries and ineffectiveness held him to a 5.10 ERA in 410 innings the rest of his career.  Dice-K eventually returned to Japan and continued to pitch into his 40’s. 

Matsuzaka debuted in Japan in 1999, and by then the modern card era was well underway. He appeared on 40 cards in Japan that year. While these were hot cards 15 years ago, Dice-K’s lack of big league success has softened demand for these cards.

At the time of this writing, no PSA graded copies of his Japanese RC are listed on eBay.  A BGS 9.5 graded copy sold recently for $25. Dice-K is a good reminder that finding prolonged success in the major leagues is not a given for transplants, so these investments involve significant risk. 

CardTotal PSA PopPSA 10 PopRecent Sales
1999 BBM #4139635NA

2021-2022 offseason and the introduction of Seiya Suzuki

In November 2021, the Hiroshima Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball of Japan posted Seiya Suzuki after nine standout seasons. Normally when a player is posted, he has 30 days to come to an agreement with a major league team on a contract.

Due to the major league lockout that began on December 2nd, however, these negotiations were put on hold pending a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). 

Who is Seiya Suzuki?

Seiya Suzuki was drafted in 2012 by the Hiroshima Carp and made his debut with them in late 2013 at age 19. He spent the next nine seasons starring for the Carp, making five All Star teams, five Gold Glove awards, and six “Best 9” awards (awarded to the best player at each position, similar to the Silver Slugger). 

He put up an impressive .317/.433/.636 line with 38 HR and a 1.069 OPS in 134 games in 2021, and hit 309/.402/.541 with a .943 OPS in his NPB career. He heads to MLB at age 27, which should put him squarely in his prime. 

Suzuki signed with the Chicago Cubs before the 2022 season on a five year, $85 million contract. He appeared in 111 games as a 27 year old rookie, putting up a .262/.336/.433 line, which was good for an OPS of .770 and OPS+ of 116. That represents a very solid rookie year, although not in the stratosphere of Ichiro or Nomo.

Japanese-issued Seiya Suzuki rookie cards

NLB baseball cards in Japan are mostly produced by BBM (Baseball Magazine). BBM produced The Seiyz Suzuki rookie card in 2013. He appears on five cards in that rookie season, across a few BBM releases.

Raw copies of the Seiya Suzuki card are selling in the $65-110 of late on eBay. That is up from $25-65 prior to Suzuki’s signing with a US team.

All of Suzuki’s Japanese cards cards are low population with PSA. For example, his standard release BBM #105, has a PSA total population of 55, with 38 PSA 10s (down from a total pop of 14 before signing). All of these other 2013 cards have populations lower than that. 

Between 2013 and 2021, Suzuki appeared on a total of 159 cards released in Japan. 

Shop for Seiya Suzuki BBM cards on eBay

seiya suzuki 2013 bbm 1st version

A sample Japanese card purchase

Roughly a year ago, on November 10th 2021, I purchased a 2019 BBM Hiroshima Toyo Carp #C59 and 2020 BBM Hiroshima Toyo Carp #C59 for a total of $19.80 delivered. A couple of weeks later, on December 3rd, 2021, I ordered another copy of the 2020 card, for $8.00 delivered.

The cards took a few weeks to arrive, as they were coming Air Mail from Japan. But when they arrived I was very pleased with the condition, as they look good enough to sub to PSA. I haven’t subbed them in the last year, but may still in the future now that PSA prices and turnaround times continue to go down.

Options to capture value w/ sample purchase

Once Suzuki signed, there was a good chance I could have flipped these cards for significantly more than I paid for them (on a percentage basis, anyway). I decided to hold onto the cards and see how Suzuki did. His “solid but not spectacular” rookie season has softened the value of the cards in question some, which was a risk I took when making the decision.

As I mentioned above, the cards look gradable. If Suzuki has a strong start to 2023, and demand for his card increases, I can submit the cards and potentially make a handsome profit over the purchase and grading fee (again, on a percentage basis).

Final thoughts on investing in international cards

International cards offer another angle when looking for value or looking to expand your collection. The example above is a low-dollar play. The beauty of this approach is that you can get in at any price point you’d like…buy a single raw card for $10, or buy several high-dollar rookie cards and submit to PSA with express service, or anything in between.

Mike D.

Mike D

Mike D. has collected cards for over 35 years, since he bought his first pack of Topps at the corner store in 1987. His fandom,  collecting interests, and contributions to Cardlines center around baseball in general and the Baseball Hall of Fame specifically.

Mike's collecting focus is centered on graded cards, mostly rookie cards, of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. Lately, he's been enjoying dabbling in graded minor league cards. A collector/investor with a "buy and hold" approach, Mike takes the long-term view with his collection.
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