The inside story of how Braves became enamored with outfielder Luis Guanipa

The first time Jonathan Cruz went to Venezuela to watch Luis Guanipa, he did not plan to speak with the kid. He simply wanted to see him practice and observe him to begin gaining a feel for the talent and characteristics that would one day make Guanipa one of the top outfielders in his class.

Despite Cruz’s intentions of staying out of the way, Guanipa walked up to him unannounced that day.

“I want to be your center fielder,” Cruz remembers Guanipa telling him.

“Why?” Cruz responded.

ExploreWho could start at left field and DH for the Braves? Here are some possibilities

“A lot of people have been counting me out because they think I’m not going to grow, they think I’m limited,” Guanipa told him.

Guanipa was only 13 or 14 years old at the time. His conviction impressed Cruz, whose career in international scouting – he’s now the Braves’ director of Latin American scouting – has taught him to sniff out acting and scripted moments.

This was not that, in his estimation. It did not seem like one of Guanipa’s agents told him to approach Cruz. He appeared to have done it on his own. This was genuine.

Cruz can tell stories about Guanipa launching baseballs out of the entire stadium or about him hitting home runs, but this tale that began with a firm handshake – “Wow, he has really hard grip strength,” Cruz thought of Guanipa – and ended with a bold statement carried much more weight for Cruz.

“He was confident in what he said,” Cruz said. “Frankly, I believed it. I believed what he said. It wasn’t an act.”

Around four years after that day, the Braves gave Guanipa, the Venezuelan outfielder, $2.5 million on the first day of the international signing period. He headlines their international class this year, and they’re excited about what he brings, both with his tools and his makeup.

‘One makeup before the money and one makeup after the money’

Unlike with amateur scouting, international scouts have a difficult job. International prospects are so young, with little information about them. In the United States, baseball players go to high school for four years, and many head off to college after that. Their files grow large over four to eight years.

In the international scene, players are just so young. For example, Raphachel Colatosti, a Braves area scout in Venezuela, first laid eyes on Guanipa when he was 12. The Braves began their official scouting process when he was 13. Along the way, they tried to learn about his character and personality as much as they evaluated his tools as a hitter and center fielder.

“We have a thing on the international side that there’s two different types of makeup: There’s one makeup before the money and one makeup after the money,” Cruz said. “And, honestly, I don’t want to say it’s a coin toss, but it’s unpredictable.”

ExploreBradley’s Buzz: The Braves haven’t made huge offseason noise, and that’s fine

When the Braves knew they liked Guanipa, they went through his trainers, Johan Hidalgo and Omar Alvarez, which is a common courtesy when a club wants to meet the family. The trainers were comfortable with the Braves, and vice versa, so Cruz and Co. eventually visited the Guanipa family’s home on Margarita Island.

Cruz said the Guanipas live in a modest house. The father, Gaetano Guanipa, is a fisherman. The mother is a stay-at-home mom.

As a fisherman, Gaetano often worked early, which meant he could get off work and watch Luis’ practices and games. “He’s a happy guy, he was easygoing,” Cruz said. “But he was very strict with his kid. He knew what the kid wanted and was there for him the whole time.” The Braves liked this.

“Positive thing is, he’s a strong father figure,” Cruz said. “So we shouldn’t have a player that’s going to act out or is going to get rebellious as a professional.”

During the in-home visit, the Braves sat with the Guanipas and laid out examples from their current farm system. Guanipa is only 17, so he wouldn’t know much about Andruw Jones or Chipper Jones.

But …

“I could talk about how (Ronald) Acuña, he performed and he moved up quick through the system,” Cruz said. “I mentioned Michael Harris, how he was up in the bigs in no time. Vaughn Grissom as well. I think those examples are our team rewarding talent and performance, and you don’t see that in a lot of teams. There’s no malpractice here. If we feel a player is ready, they’re going to move up, and I think that excites players.”

Something else Cruz feels became an advantage for the Braves: Their farm system is thin on the position-player side. The Braves obviously couldn’t promise Guanipa that he would rise through their system quickly, but their lack of depth means that, if he performs, he has a better chance to do so than he might with other clubs. The family liked that.

Cruz knows families may be trained to act. Home visits can be rather scripted. That’s why he often encourages the scouts in his department to show up to a player’s house unannounced with a pizza one day and just hang out. This helps breed genuine conversation as teams try to learn as much about a player as they can before making a significant investment in him.

The Braves believe Guanipa, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds, has a good chance to feature four plus tools in the future. (In the scouting world, “plus” is somewhere between above average and elite.) But there are many talented players in Latin America. What separates them doesn’t have anything to do with natural gifts.

“If you do some research, you can look at a lot of players that have received 2, 3 million, and two, three years later they’re out of baseball,” Cruz said. “And that’s usually because of the makeup, almost exclusively because of the makeup.”

This is why teams must have a comprehensive evaluation – how a player’s teammates react to him, how he acts after failing, how he competes, whether he’s coachable and more. The process – a player signing with a club and spending years in its system before potentially reaching the majors – is a long journey, and a team must believe it’s betting on the correct person.

How the Braves got an honest look at Luis Guanipa

It’s not easy to get to Margarita Island. There are a limited number of flights in and out of the local airport. But you can take a ferry to the island. Either way, the journey can be complicated. “Basically, this was the reason not many teams had a lot of information on this kid,” said Carlos Sequera, the Braves’ supervisor in Venezuela.

To make their trip worthwhile, Braves scouts would spend one or two weeks at a time on the island. They got extended looks with Guanipa, which helped them paint a real picture. You can fake something over two or three days, but it’s much tougher to fool scouts over a week or two.

“As much as you want to act or as much as you want to try to force a persona, you’re going to get flashes of (if) he strikes out three times one day, how he reacts, or you watch him practice to see if his teammates gravitate toward him or if they leave him alone,” Cruz said. “We’re scouting him, but we have to see the teammates as well. If the teammates don’t gravitate toward him, he’s probably not a nice guy to them and not someone they want to be around.”

The Braves liked what they saw all around. Cruz said Guanipa is “borderline an introvert.” Sequera described him as “polite and smart.” He seemingly passed every test.

The Braves tried their best to pit Guanipa against much better competition and set him up to fail, so they had him play in a couple of winter league games. Guanipa, who was playing against anyone from a former big leaguer to a current minor leaguer, impressed the Braves.

“We wanted to see if he would get frustrated or if he was willing to take the challenge,” Cruz said. “He was willing to take the challenge. We never saw frustration on a bad day.”

They also loved his presence.

“Sometimes in the offseason, we’d see professional players practicing at the same time as him, and they would gravitate toward the kid, and not the other way around – which is sort of fascinating to see,” Cruz said.

‘Haven’t seen many players hit the ball with such authority at the same age’

Guanipa features an exciting combination of power and speed. Cruz graded his future power at a 70, which on the 20-80 scouting scale would be viewed as elite.

“It was very impressive how hard he could hit the ball,” said Sequera, who also watched Guanipa a lot. “I haven’t seen many players hit the ball with such authority at the same age as him.”

The Braves believe Guanipa’s hit tool in the future might be above average to very good. He has good hand-eye coordination and a good sense for the strike zone. As he matures, he should display more patience at the plate.

As for speed, the Braves timed Guanipa in the 60-yard dash. He once clocked a 6.19, which Cruz said is pretty close to elite speed. The Braves believe that Guanipa will have the chance to reach double digits in stolen bases every year. Plus, his speed should allow him to make up for what Cruz evaluated as average instincts and an average first step in center field.

This isn’t a knock on Guanipa – very few center fielders know exactly where the ball is going off the bat. “That, you can’t teach,” Cruz said. But Guanipa has chased down balls in the gap because of his excellent speed, which is why the Braves think Guanipa could be average or above average in the field.

His weakest tool is his arm. It has improved, and Cruz believes it could be average in the future.

‘He’s a premier athlete’

In Guanipa, the Braves have an exciting player. But all along, they had to determine whether they could feel comfortable with giving him a huge signing bonus and making him the crown jewel of their international class this year.

“Most important thing is you have to gauge how much he likes the game,” Cruz said. “If there’s passion about his game, his craft, baseball. If he’s proud of what he does or if he’s just going through the motions. There’s been a lot of very good players that are just going through the motions, and they’re just interested in signing, getting paid and whatever happens, happens. It’s not easy to (evaluate), but I think that’s the biggest separator from the rest: How bad do they want it?”

Cruz and his team work closely with Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, who must sign off on these signings. Cruz said Anthopoulos has a great feel for the international side and will go to Latin America to see players when he has time. Anthopoulos, Cruz said, is adamant about getting the top player in the class each year.

Of course, the Braves won’t know what they truly have in Guanipa until years down the road. But his talent is obvious, and they feel confident in their evaluation of his makeup.

They believe they ended with one of the best players on the international market this year.

“He’s a premier athlete,” Sequera said.