It's been a long time since Venezuela has ever had an amateur prospect as good as Kevin Maitan.
That's saying something for a country that has been a rich source of talent for major league teams. The two best Venezuelan amateur prospects of the last five years, at the time they signed at age 16, were Cubs shortstop Gleyber Torres in 2013, and Athletics shortstop Franklin Barreto, who signed with the Blue Jays the previous year and was one of the country's most accomplished players ever at international tournaments. The top bonus ever for a Venezuelan position player was $2.5 million in 2008 for Reds outfielder Yorman Rodriguez, a good athlete with raw tools but a lot of questions on his bat.
Maitan, quite simply, is better than all of them.
Aside from older Cuban players who have come over, Maitan, a 16-year-old switch-hitting shortstop, is the best international prospect for July 2 since Miguel Sano signed with the Twins for $3.15 million in 2009. Scouts considered both players potential impact, middle-of-the-order bats, though staying at shortstop was never a realistic option for Sano. With Maitan, he might be able to stay there, which is why you can argue he might be an even better prospect.
It takes a lot longer than that to find a Venezuelan prospect as good as Maitan at his age. It's not that the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Maitan is similar to Miguel Cabrera, but it's easy to see why there are Venezuelan scouts who consider Maitan the best 16-year-old amateur prospect the country has produced since Cabrera signed with the Marlins 17 years ago for $1.9 million.
That's why if Maitan were in the draft, he would be a first-round pick—and might be a high one, too. Excluding Cubans, the last international amateur player to sign and become a Top 100 prospect before he ever played a professional game was Sano, who ranked as the No. 96 prospect after the 2009 season. Maitan has the rare talent to be the next one.
When the international signing period opens on Saturday, the Braves are expected to make Maitan the crown jewel of their very expensive signing class. There's a long road ahead and lot that can go wrong with a 16-year-old prospect, who hasn't been tested yet the same way 21-year-old college juniors or 18-year-old high school seniors are before the draft. But for a 16-year-old international prospect, it's hard to ask for much more.
There's little disagreement that Maitan is the top offensive threat in the class. Whether scouts saw him as a pure hitter with average power, a power hitter with a little more swing-and-miss, or an offensive monster who combined the best of both worlds varied among evaluators, but there was universal appreciation for Maitan's ability at the plate.
"The physicality, the athleticism, the tools across the board with a plus bat and plus power," said one scout. "I thought he was far and away the best player in the class. We saw him a lot, we saw him early and we saw him hit in games. He made a lot of contact and a lot of hard contact. We saw a power display in games, hitting balls over the fence. It was impressive."
Added another scout: "He's by far the best guy out of the group. He has a chance to hit from both sides of the plate. He's not Miguel Cabrera, but he's going to have the power to hit 20 to 25 home runs."
Scouts have spent years following Maitan, who trains with Henderson Martinez. When Martinez had lefthander Ricardo Sanchez sign with the Angels for $580,000 on July 2, 2013, he was already showcasing Maitan as a 13-year-old. Martinez had center fielder Brayan Hernandez ($1.85 million with the Mariners) sign the next year, and while scouts came in to see Hernandez, they kept getting more looks at Maitan, who has lived up to lofty early expectations.
"Maitan was the No. 1 guy early on and he stayed there," said a third scout. "He's got power from both sides of the plate and he knows how to play. He's a good talent who has a chance to impact a lineup with power, with more damage from the right side than the left side. I've seen him hit doubles and I've seen him hit a couple balls out in games."
A few clubs thought Maitan would rack up his share of strikeouts, but even they felt it would be manageable given the overall offensive production and power he could provide.
"There was swing and miss, but he showed game power," said a fourth scout. "I saw true backspin and loft from the right side, a little more forced from the left side. The right side had the easy loft and the kind of carry that you look for."
Making It Look Easy
Usually when a player has Maitan's raw power, there's some stiffness to his stroke or effort to the way he swings. There are hitters who can put on a fireworks show in batting practice, taking a grip-and-rip approach with a lot of moving parts they use to help launch balls over the fence when they know ball is coming in straight and over the plate. Then when the game starts, they have trouble syncing up their swings, adjusting to different speeds and staying within the strike zone.
With Maitan, that's never been an issue. One of the consistent praises from scouts about his game is how low-maintenance and effortless he makes things look.
"I would say he's probably the top guy for me," said a fifth scout. "The bat potential stood out for a guy who has a chance to stick at shortstop. It's a combination of being able to hit and hit for power with advanced feel for his age. The ease of play, the way he could hit balls with authority without a ton of effort, that's really what stood out the most."
Maitan looks natural in the batter's box, but the ease of operation and overall game awareness extends beyond just when he has a bat in his hands. Last year's No. 1 international prospect, Blue Jays outfielder (and now third baseman) Vladimir Guerrero Jr., could be a middle-of-the-order masher one day, but the rest of his skill set isn't as well-rounded as Maitan's.
"He separated himself from everyone," said a sixth scout. "It's about how easy he does everything. He's not the fastest runner in the class, but he looks like he's jogging, and it's 6.7 (seconds in the 60-yard dash). He's taking groundballs and he looks like a winter ball player already. That's what separates him, is how easy he does things."
Staying At Shortstop?
The biggest divide among scouts is where Maitan will play in the field. Most of that debate is based on the uncertainty of how he will develop physically. He already has a bigger build for a shortstop. He's certainly going to get heavier and he's young enough that he might even grow taller. The question is mostly whether Maitan will be able to stay lean and agile enough to remain at shortstop, or whether he would fit better at third base, where he has the tools to be an above-average defender.
For now, Maitan can play shortstop. He's athletic, his arm his plus, his speed is above-average even if it will likely slow down as he fills out, and his hands work well in the field. Some scouts prefer a wiry bodied, more traditional shortstop build and think Maitan will eventually outgrow the position. Even for them, that didn't matter much, because his offensive potential is good enough no matter where he plays.
"You have to put him No. 1 because of the potential impact offense," said a seventh scout. "He has power from both sides and the swing looks like it's going to work. The body will take him to third base, maybe eventually right field, but I don't think it matters. You're buying a switch-hitting power guy who can launch it with 60 raw power right now, which at 16 is saying something, and he should have 70 raw power. He separates himself with that impact tool."
There were others who agreed that Maitan most likely would end up moving off the position, mainly because of his body type.
"I don't think he's going to stay at shortstop, but you never know," said the second scout. "He has the ability to play it now, but I think he ends up at third base. He's going to get thicker, and I just don't see the quickness and quick-twitch to play shortstop."
Other evaluators liked Maitain's chances to remain at shortstop.
"I think he stays at shortstop for a while, depending how physical he gets," said an eighth scout. "He's got very good footwork and coordination for a big guy. He's a dancer out there. I wouldn't write him off playing shortstop yet. There are guys his size playing shortstop."
After all, Xander Bogaerts was a player many thought would eventually slide over to third base but has developed into one of the game's best shortstops. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, who is bigger, less athletic and slower than Maitan, has also defied expectations that he couldn't stay up the middle. So, why can't Maitan play shortstop?
"There were no questions about him sticking at shortstop," said the first scout. "I think he's going to stick at shortstop for a long time. The hand speed, the arm was plus, the actions were average, but because of the athleticism, he's able to make all the plays at shortstop."
What Could Go Wrong?
For years, teams have been fighting it out to sign Maitan. He's still a 16-year-old kid, but he's already been hearing how he's the next big thing, the No. 1 international prospect for 2016, the next great future star from Venezuela. How could that not get to a player's head?
"Kids gravitate around him like he's a superstar," said the fourth scout. "He has a weird aura about him on the field. He just looked and acted different than the other guys."
Now Maitan will be under an even more public microscope once he signs and comes to the United States, all while he's still 16. That's something few players have to go through from such a young age. Plenty of others teams have dealt with maturity issues from players after they signed for big bonuses, so there's always uncertainty among scouts about how a player will respond after he signs for big money and all the accompanying attention.
But if you're afraid to pay up for Maitan, you shouldn't pay anyone.
"He's had all the pressure in the world," said the first scout, "and he's handled it."