Top signing: SS Derian Cruz, Dominican Republic, $2 million.
Total signings: 23.
Former international scouting director Johnny Almaraz left the Braves after the 2014 season to join the Phillies as their new scouting director, so Atlanta went through its first July 2 last year under new international leadership. International director Marc Russo joined the organization after working as an international crosschecker for the Astros and previously running (and re-building) the Angels international department, while special assistant Gordon Blakeley also is a key decision-maker internationally after being heavily involved for the Yankees in Latin America.
The Braves poured all of their 2015-16 international bonus pool money into three players, focusing on premium positions and premium athletes. Dominican shortstop Derian Cruz, arguably the most dynamic athlete of any Latin American signing last year, joined the Braves for $2 million on July 2 after training with Javier Rodriguez and Rudy Santin and playing in the International Prospect League. Cruz, 17, is oozing with quick-twitch athleticism, running the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds and going home to first from the left side in 4.1 seconds, making him a conservative 70 runner and tickling 80 speed. He has a quick first step, a gliding gait and should be a prolific basestealer.
Cruz isn’t a pure hitter, but he does have a solid bat for a shortstop. He’s a switch-hitter who is more advanced from the right side, where he’s able to drive the ball with more authority and with better barrel control than he does lefthanded. Some scouts like his hitting potential, but others saw a crude swing, particularly from the left side, with a tendency to shift his weight forward early causing his bat to drag behind, though he does manage to put the bat to the ball. The Braves believed he had good bath path from both sides of the plate and were pleased with the progress he was making from the left side. His intelligence and premium athleticism should help him make further adjustments with experience.
Cruz has grown and gotten stronger, now up to 6-foot-1, 177 pounds. He has quick bat speed, strong forearms and the physical projection to grow his current gap power into potentially 10-15 home run pop. Where Cruz has made the most progress already is in the field. Before signing, Cruz already showed good footwork, plus range and a quick transfer, but several scouts felt he might ultimately fit better either at second base or in center field. Part of that was based on Cruz’s arm, which graded out average at best and with a funky throwing stroke. The Braves believed he could stick at shortstop and that his arm action was a combination of youth and lack of strength.
Since Cruz signed, Braves coaches have helped him smooth out his throwing mechanics and learn to gather his feet underneath him better when he throws. He’s now showing a 55 arm with the ability to throw from multiple angles and better accuracy now that he’s not flicking the ball over to first base. Cruz has a lot of similarities to fellow Dominican shortstop Jorge Mateo, the Yankees’ No. 1 prospect, though Cruz has a tick more size. The Braves are aggressive with their first-year international signings, so Cruz has a good chance to debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
The Braves gave another seven-figure bonus to a Dominican prospect last year when they signed center fielder Cristian Pache for $1.4 million on July 3 out of Valentin Monero’s program. Pache hit well last February at MLB’s international showcase, where he went 3-for-6 with a triple, a walk, a stolen base and no strikeouts. Pache, who is 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, is another quick-twitch athlete with plus-plus speed and a nose for the ball in center field. In 2014, he had a screw put into his right elbow to repair a fracture prior to signing, but the Braves say he’s back throwing now and showing a plus arm. Pache draws a split camp based on how scouts viewed his hitting ability. He has the size and bat speed to project an increase what’s already solid power for his age, and he did perform well at the MLB showcase. His righthanded swing is unorthodox, with some scouts questioning his approach that led to swing-and-miss in against live pitching and believing his bat would need time to come around. Others believed Pache’s ability to get to the hitting zone quickly and hand-eye coordination would allow him to hit in games. Pache will likely join Cruz in the GCL.
The third key Braves signing from the 2015-16 signing period was Juan Morales, a Venezuelan shortstop who got $450,000. Morales has grown since the Braves signed him but is still extremely skinny at 6-foot-2, 165 pounds. He’s a fundamentally sound defender at shortstop, securing the ball well with sure hands to make the routine plays with good anticipation off the bat, average speed and a solid-average arm that could tick up with strength. Some scouts liked Morales’ righthanded swing and the way he managed his at-bats, though because of his lack of strength, his ability to drive the ball and perform in games might take time to come around, so he will start in the Dominican Summer League. Morales trained with Andres Puerta.
During the 2014-15 signing period, the Braves signed 18-year-old Dominican shortstop Jeremy Fernandez for $200,000 in May. Fernandez is 6-foot-1, 150 pounds and impressed the Braves with his athleticism, plus-plus speed, plus arm and defense at shortstop. In the DSL last year, Fernandez hit .262/.333/.308 in 120 plate appearances with nine walks, 19 strikeouts and three stolen bases in four attempts. His raw tools are ahead of his righthanded bat, as he’s still smoothing out an uphill swing with gap power.
The Braves bet on premium athletes with speed for their top signings in 2015, and while Randy Ventura’s $17,500 bonus last February was one of the smaller ones they awarded in 2015, he’s another player with top-end wheels. A 5-foot-9, 165-pound switch-hitting center fielder from the Dominican Republic, Ventura is even faster than Cruz, running the 60-yard dash in 6.2-6.3 seconds. That’s easy 80 speed on any scale, which helped him lead the DSL with 55 stolen bases in 58 games, with nine caught stealing and 20 more steals than the No. 2 player on the list. Ventura also hit well, batting .329/.421/.394 in 274 plate appearances with more walks (35) than strikeouts (27). Early in the season, Ventura was swiping bases on pure speed, but over time he’s started to learn more about reading pitchers and getting good jumps. Ventura has minimal power, but he stays within himself at the plate, putting the ball in play and finding a way to get on base. He has an average arm and the speed that should give him excellent range once his outfield reads and routes develop.