International Reviews: Atlanta Braves
Top signing: SS Kevin Maitan, Venezuela, $4.25 million.
Total signings: 33
Between signing bonuses and their upcoming overage tax payment, the Braves have invested nearly $27 million to sign international prospects during the 206-17 signing period. The crown jewel of the international signing class was shortstop Kevin Maitan, who on July 2 signed with the Braves for $4.25 million, setting a Venezuelan bonus record. Maitan, 17, was the top prospect in the 2016 class and already ranks as the No. 77 prospect in baseball, making him the first July 2 prospect to rank in the BA Top 100 since Miguel Sano. Maitan was the best 16-year-old prospect since Sano signed with the Twins in 2009 and some scouts felt he was the best Venezuelan amateur position prospect since Miguel Cabrera signed with the Marlins in 1999. Maitan has an outstanding combination of size, athleticism, tools, game skills and hitting ability with a chance to stay at a premium position.
Maitan has enormous offensive upside, showing the ability to perform well against live pitching from both sides of the plate. He recognizes pitches, understands the strike zone, has excellent bat speed and is able to generate easy elevation to show plus raw power that could turn into 70 power in the future. That power comes with strikeouts, but it’s manageable swing-and-miss that comes with his swing path. At his peak, he could hit in the middle of a lineup with high OBPs and 30-homer power. The biggest change for Maitan over the past year has been his physical development. He’s packed on at least 30 pounds to become 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, with the extra strength helping the consistency of his throws and the repeatability of his swing to help him control the barrel better. It has cost him some speed, as expected, going from a plus runner underway to an average runner now, but he still has the athleticism and internal clock to play shortstop for now.
Whether Maitan stays at shortstop was the biggest split among scouts, but there’s a coin flip chance he can stay there depending how much bigger he gets and how much agility he retains. His arm is a 60-65 tool, he has excellent hands, his feet work well and he has good body control in the field. Maitan has a chance to stay at shortstop and be an average defender, though if he has to slide over to third base, he could be a plus defender there with plenty of offensive impact for the position. Maitan will make his pro debut at one of the U.S. Rookie-level affiliates, either in the Gulf Coast League or the Appalachian League.
The Braves signed 17-year-old Abrahan Gutierrez out of Venezuela on July 2 for $3.53 million, a record for an international amateur catcher. While Maitan was widely regarded as the No. 1 prospect in the class, the Braves were significantly higher on Gutierrez relative to the rest of the industry. Gutierrez, who trained with Carlos Guillen, stood out physically from an early age. As an 11-year-old he was Venezuela’s catcher at the 12U World Championship in Taiwan, then in 2014 he caught for the 15U World Cup team in Mexico. Gutierrez doesn’t have any plus tools, but he’s a good bet to stick behind the plate as long as he maintains his conditioning and agility within a heavy 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame. His ample catching experience for his age is evident in the way he receives, blocks, handles a pitching staff, calls a game and has a high overall baseball IQ. His arm strength is a 50-55 but it plays up because of his footwork, quick release and accuracy. Offensively, Gutierrez is a solid righthanded hitter with a power-over-hit profile. It’s not plus power yet, but it could be in the future, with the ability to pull balls over the fence now in batting practice. Right now he’s mostly works gap to gap, with some length and stiffness to his righthanded swing. He should be ticketed for the GCL this summer.
Yunior Severino, a Dominican shortstop who trained with Rudy Santin, signed with the Braves for $1.9 million on July 2. Severino, 17, is 6-foot-1, 180 pounds with a chance to hit for big power from both sides of the plate and a position still to be determined. He has strong hands, quick wrists and outstanding bat speed to whip the barrel through the hitting zone. Severino starts his swing with a leg kick and has a lot of movement in a stroke built for power. He drives the ball with authority from both sides, getting more natural loft from the left side. With his bat speed, current power and room to fill out his lean frame, Severino could have 70 future power. It’s loud contact when Severino has all those moving parts in his swing synced up, but it can also create timing issues for him that have led to some inconsistency against live pitching. Severino might start out at shortstop, but his future is probably somewhere else, due in part to his awkward infield actions. A fringe-average runner, Severino has a good arm with an easy release, his hands are sound and he plays under control, but he will need to improve his footwork to stay in the infield. The Braves have Severino at shortstop for now, but they have also given his a lot of repetitions at third base and have introduced him to the outfield as well. Some scouts from other clubs thought second base could be another option for Severino, but for now third base looks like his best-case option. He’s expected to make his pro debut in the GCL.
The Braves on July 2 signed Dominican righthander Juan Contreras for $1.2 million, which aside from the older Cuban signings was the biggest bonus for an international pitching prospect last year. That doesn’t mean Contreras was viewed within the industry as the top pitcher on the market, but he is a hard thrower already and should have even more in the tank. Contreras, 17, is 6-foot-2, 180 pounds with a fastball that parks at 89-94 mph and has topped out at 96 with good downhill plane. Between his arm speed, clean throwing stroke and physical projection, he should be reaching the upper-90s soon. Contreras, who trained with Luis Mejia, is still more thrower than pitcher. The Braves saw better strike-throwing ability than other teams did, but he will have to show better pitchability and secondary stuff (his slider is better than his changeup right now) to remain a starter. He might start in the Dominican Summer League but could jump to the GCL at some point this year.
Yenci Pena is a Dominican shortstop the Braves signed for $1.05 million when he turned 16 on July 13. Pena trained with Victor Baez and generated a wide range of reports from scouts, both in terms of how much they liked him and even what type of skill set he had. The Braves saw a player who continued to get better throughout the entire process leading up to his signing. Scouts from other clubs were split on whether Pena would fit best at shortstop, third base or a corner outfield spot, but the Braves viewed Pena as a true shortstop who could field his position well with soft hands, a good internal clock and arm strength that improved to plus as he got stronger and was able to smooth out a funky throwing stroke. He’s wiry strong at 6-foot-2, 175 pounds with a quick, sound stroke from the right side. Pena puts together quality at-bats with good contact frequency and a line-drive approach with gap power that could grow into average power once he adds weight to his frame. He’s likely to start his career at one of the Braves’ Rookie-level affiliates in the U.S.
Venezuelan shortstop Livan Soto, who the Braves signed for $1 million on July 2, is a smooth, graceful defender and an extremely smart, savvy player in all aspects of the game. Still 16, Soto is extremely thin (5-foot-11, 160 pounds) and light on his feet at shortstop. He’s an instinctual defender with a great internal clock, positioning himself well, taking good angles to the ball and picking it with soft hands. He stays through the ball when he throws, which for someone his size allows his arm to play as plus. While a lot of talented young shortstops try to do too much, Soto plays under control, knows when to hold on to the ball and is accurate when he does throw. He’s an average runner with good anticipation and instincts on the basepaths. Getting stronger will be imperative for Soto and might take some time, but his bat control and plate discipline are assets at the plate. He steps in the bucket at times but has a simple, quiet approach without too many moving parts, making a lot of contact with a short, repeatable swing. Soto tracks and recognizes pitches well, usually staying within the strike zone. He’s mostly a singles hitter right now with occasional doubles pop, with power likely never to be part of his game. Soto, who trained with Yasser Mendez, is expected to make his pro debut at one of the Braves’ Rookie-level affiliates in the U.S. as well.
The seventh player the Braves gave a seven-figure bonus last year, Yefri del Rosario, signed for $1 million in July. Several teams considered del Rosario, a 17-year-old Dominican righthander, one of the premium pitching prospects in the 2016 signing class. He’s around 6 feet, 170 pounds with two pitches that stand out right now in his fastball and curveball. He sits 89-92 mph and touches 94 with a fastball that solid sink and tail. Given his excellent arm speed, he could throw harder once his legs get stronger. Del Rosario is able to finish hitters with a breaking ball that flashes plus, a swing-and-miss out pitch with sharp, late break and two-plane depth. It was one of the best breaking pitches in the class and a pitch he’s not afraid to throw in any count. He hasn’t needed to use his changeup much, so that’s his third pitch, but he’s shown early signs of having feel for that pitch. Del Rosario has a starter’s repertoire, though there is some reliever risk in part because of his mechanics. His stabbing arm action has a hook on the back side and he throws across his body with some effort to his delivery, though he does a good job of getting himself reconnected to get back on line to the plate and direct the fastball to his glove side. The Braves liked Rosario’s ability to throw his fastball for strikes, though there was some concern among other clubs about inconsistent strike-throwing, which could stem from his delivery. If he’s able to repeat his mechanics and command his fastball, he has the repertoire to start. Del Rosario trained with Carlos Guzman and pitched a lot leading up to July 2, so the Braves have taken things slowly with him and most likely will have him open in the DSL, though his talent could push him to the GCL by the end of the year.
Among the next tier of signings in the Braves class, Colombian righthander Guillermo Zuniga got $350,000 on July 2. He’s 18 and was able to pitch immediately out of the DSL Braves’ bullpen last year. Zuniga was originally an outfielder but his arm was better than his bat, so he moved to the mound and saw his stock rise. Signed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds touching 93, he’s grown an inch or two since then and has seen his fastball climb as well, topping out at 96 with natural cut and sink. He’s been a sponge around Braves coaches and has taken to pitching instruction quickly, already flashing a swing-and-miss changeup. That pitch is ahead of his curveball, which has hard bite but is understandably still inconsistent given his inexperience.
Antonio Sucre, a 17-year-old, stocky corner outfielder, signed with the Braves for $300,000 on July 2. He’s a 5-foot-11, 185-pound left fielder who stood out most for his offensive upside. He has a compact, mechanically sound swing from the right side of the plate, with the strength for average power. Sucre trained with Rafael Moncada.
Dominican left fielder Jeffrey Ramos is an 18-year-old who signed for $250,000 on July 2 after training with Chiqui Mejia. Ramos had previously been eligible to sign in 2015, so he played right away in the DSL and batted .230/.283/.333 in 138 plate appearances. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ramos’ main tool is his power from the right side. The power didn’t translate in games last year because of Ramos’ free-swinging approach that resulted in him waving through too many pitches outside the strike zone, so developing a better plan and improving his pitch recognition will be key to tap into that power more in games.
Charles Reyes, a 17-year-old Dominican center field, signed for $250,000 in September. At 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, Reyes drew the Braves’ attention for his intriguing power/speed potential. He’s a plus runner with an average arm that should allow him to stay in center field. He doesn’t have quite as much power as Ramos right now, but he has a more natural stroke from the left side with the ability to drop the bat head and drive pitches down in the strike zone.
Braulio Vasquez signed with the Braves for $100,000 on July 2, and since he was eligible to sign in 2015, he was able to jump straight into DSL action. A 17-year-old Dominican middle infielder, Vasquez quickly showed his hitting polish by batting .333/.416/.374 in 113 plate appearances. He’s a plus runner with good rhythm and bat path from the right side of the plate, leading to a lot of contact. Vasquez doesn’t lift the ball much and didn’t show much extra-base power during the season, but he’s grown an inch and added 20 pounds since signing to 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. Vasquez split time between shortstop and second base last year. He has a strong arm and good infield actions, but Vasquez feels more comfortable at second base, which is probably where he will play going forward.
Dominican lefthander Lisandro Santos, 18, signed for $130,000 on July 2, then pitched in four games out of the DSL Braves’ bullpen. He’s 6-foot-1, 170 pounds with an upper-80s fastball and a breaking ball that’s his best pitch right now. Andres Adrianza, 17, signed for $100,000 on July 2 out of Venezuela. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Adrianza is an offensive-minded player with a righthanded power stroke to right-center field. He has played catcher and first base with a high probability of moving to first base full time. He trained with Carlos Rios. The Braves did sign three Cuban players last year too, none of whom were high profile players.
One was 29-year-old reliever Carlos Portuondo, who signed for $990,000 in February on a minor league deal exempt from the bonus pools, split time between high Class A and Triple-A last year, then was traded to the Reds with lefthander Andrew McKirahan for Brandon Phillips this year in February.
In November, the Braves signed 26-year-old Cuban righthander Elian Leyva for $810,000 on a minor league deal exempt from the pools. Leyva struggled as a reliever with Mayabeque in Serie Nacional, with a mid-to-high 80s fastball that has hit 90 mph, with a slider, curveball and changeup that he mixes in liberally. To get him innings, the Braves put Leyva on loan to Tijuana of the Mexican League, so he will pitch for the Toros in 2017.
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In December, Alay Lago signed with the Braves for $175,000. Lago, 25, never did much to stand out while in Cuba, then in 2016 played for Veracruz in the Mexican League, where he hit .255/.282/.349 in 113 plate appearances with there walks and 19 strikeouts. The Braves liked Lago’s athleticism and gap power form the right side in his 6-foot, 200-pound frame, with Lago likely to play second base or center field.