2014-15 International Reviews: Atlanta Braves
Top signing: 3B Juan Yepez, Venezuela, $1 million.
Six-figure signings: SS Isranel Wilson (US Virgin Islands/Dominican Republic), CF Raysheandall Michel (Curacao), RHP Jhoniel Sepulveda (Dominican Republic), 1B Jan Patrick Guerrero (Dominican Republic), OF Ronald Acuna (Venezuela).
Total signings: 25.
With Johnny Almaraz as international scouting director, the Braves brought several quality international players into the organization, including Colombian righthander Julio Teheran, Venezuelan shortstop Jose Peraza, Curacaoan shortstop Ozhaino Albies and Panamanian catcher Christian Bethancourt, although the team wasn't as prolific in the Dominican Republic. After the 2014 season, Almaraz left the Braves to becoming the scouting director for the Phillies.
When the Braves overhauled their front office, they hired Marc Russo, who had been an international crosschecker for the Astros the last two years, as their new international director. Russo had previously rebuilt the Angels' international program from scratch with no prior international experience after that organization had fired all of its Latin American scouts, making a quick impact on the organization from 2010-12 while operating on a miniscule budget and having to hire an entire staff. The Angels during that time signed righthanders Victor Alcantara and Eduar Lopez and outfielder Natanael Delgado, all of whom rank among the Angels' top 30 prospects, as well as shortstop Jose Rondon, one of the prospects the Angels use in last year's July trade to acquire Huston Street from the Padres. They also made the decision to move Jairo Diaz from light-hitting catcher to flame-throwing pitcher after seeing him in the Dominican Summer League. Diaz reached the big leagues last year throwing 100 mph before getting traded in December for Josh Rutledge. The Braves also beefed up their international scouting personnel by luring Gordon Blakeley from the Yankees, hiring the highly respected and experienced scout to be a special assistant to the general manager. They also hired Chad MacDonald, the former Diamondbacks international scouting director who also was involved internationally in his most recent role as the assistant GM of the Padres, as a special assistant.
Going through July 2 under Almaraz, the Braves paid $1 million to Venezuelan third baseman Juan Yepez. While some teams considered Yepez a solid prospect in the low to mid six-figure range, the Braves went well beyond the industry consensus on his talent with his bonus. Yepez trained with Ricardo Petit, who is the brother of Braves assistant Latin American director Rolando Petit. The Braves have signed several players from his program over the years, including Peraza, outfielder Victor Reyes and shortstop Alejandro Salazar.
Early on, Yepez's heavy build (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) had scouts expecting he would have to move to first base, but he worked hard to improve his conditioning as July 2 approached. That physical change helped Yepez, 17, do things he couldn't before, including better bat speed. Yepez's value is tied into his offensive game. He has quick hands and a loose righthanded swing with good balance, although scouts had mixed reports on his hitting approach and ability to perform in games. He's a strength-oriented hitter with average raw power. Staying in shape to avoid a shift to first base will be critical for Yepez. He has an average arm and moves surprisingly well for his size, with fringe-average speed, although he will slow down as he gets older.
Ronald Acuna, a 17-year-old who signed for $100,000 on July 2, is a projectable, athletic center fielder. With slightly above-average speed and a plus arm, he has a good chance to stay in center field and potentially be an above-average defender depending how much of his speed he's able to retain with his 6-foot, 180-pound frame. Acuna is toolsy, with average raw power that could increase with his strength projection. Being able to repeat his righthanded swing to make more frequent contact in games and tap into that power will be the key for Acuna. Even though Acuna wasn't signed for a big bonus, there's a chance he could start in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, although he could stay back in the DSL.
In August, the Braves paid $175,000 for Raysheandall Michel, a 17-year-old outfielder from Curacao, after he played well in the Senior Little League World Series in Bangor, Maine. At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Michel can play center field with average speed and an above-average arm. He's a righthanded hitter who has a lot of baseball experience, with a line-drive approach and mostly gap power.
Almaraz also signed lefthanded-hitting Dominican first baseman Jan Patrick Guerrero for $150,000 on July 2. Guerrero, 18, is the son of Dodgers Latin American coordinator Patrick Guerrero. He did not hit well after signing, batting just .206/.259/.290 in 116 plate appearances in the DSL.
The Braves signed two players from the U.S. Virgin Islands who trained in the Dominican Republic. One, David Sacaria, is a crude corner outfielder who stood out to the Braves for his size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and raw power from the right side when they signed him for $150,000 on July 2.
Correction: We previously wrote that the Braves had signed David Sacaria, an outfielder born in St. Thomas who trained in the Dominican Republic, for $150,000 on July 2. That contract, however, was never approved, and Sacaria is now playing at Miami Dade High School in Florida. Isranel Wilson, who signed for $350,000 on December 31, arguably has the most upside of any international player the organization signed last year. Wilson, 17, was born in St. Thomas but trained in the Dominican Republic with Moreno Tejada. Wilson is a childhood friend of White Sox outfielder Micker Adolfo, who also came from St. Thomas to the Dominican Republic to train with Tejada before signing for $1.6 million in 2013.
Wilson has an athletic, projectable frame (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) with a chance to have five average to plus tools. He fields his position well, has above-average speed and a 55 arm that should be plus once he gets stronger. If Wilson gets so big that he outgrows shortstop, he has the speed and athleticism to stay in the middle of the field by moving to center field rather than sliding over to third base. A lefthanded hitter, Wilson hits the ball hard and has a chance to grow into plus raw power. He stays on the ball well to use the opposite field but also has the sock in his bat to drive the ball with authority to his pull side. He's good enough already that he's going to extended spring training with a strong chance to play in the GCL when the season opens.
A few weeks before they signed Wilson, the Braves gave $400,000 to Leudys Baez from the Dominican Republic. In November 2013, Baez had signed a contract with the Nationals for $80,000, but that Major League Baseball never approved his contract and declared him ineligible to sign for one year. When he became eligible to sign again, he made five times more money thanks to MLB's sanctions, as he signed with the Braves and had his contract approved using the same June 26, 1996 date of birth to sign with Washington. Baez, 18, 6 feet, 160 pounds and showcased as a middle infielder, but the Braves signed him to play center field, where his speed and arm strength are solid-average tools. What impressed the Braves about him the most was his bat, as he's a switch-hitter with a good approach from both sides of the plate along with gap power and occasional over-the-fence pop. He's a little older than most international signings, so he could move quickly and possibly reach low Class A Rome at some point this season.
Atlanta's new international group also signed Dominican righthander Jhoniel Sepulveda in November for $150,000. Sepulveda, 17, is 6-foot-2, 175 pounds with an excellent fastball. He has a plus fastball that touches 96 and combines mid-90s velocity with above-average movement. He's an aggressive pitcher with good arm action and a manageable delivery, so he's not just a thrower, but he does need to develop his secondary pitches to keep hitters off his fastball, whether it's a short slider or a changeup, even if he ends up in the bullpen down the road.
The Braves could also have a sleeper in 19-year-old Dominican righthander Luis Mora if he can ever figure out how to throw strikes. Mora, who is 6-foot-4, 160 pounds and signed for $10,000 in January, has been up to the mid-90s and has started to gain feel for a changeup. Right right now he has little idea of where his fastball is going though, which is why he got hit to a 10.18 ERA with 42 walks in 38 innings and 34 strikeouts in the DSL last year.
Atlanta also took a $10,000 flier in November on Dominican shortstop Alex Aquino, who trained with Jose Cano, the father of Robinson Cano. Aquino, 18, is has good size (6-foot-2, 165 pounds), an above-average arm and slightly above-average speed, with defensive tools that are ahead of his righthanded bat.