The Braves thought they’d land the “big fish” Saturday, and they got him: Kevin Maitan, a 16-year-old Venezuelan shortstop and consensus No. 1-rated international amateur prospect.
On the first day of the international signing period, the Braves signed 13 prospects, a group led by Maitan, who got a Venezuelan-record $4.25 million bonus, and three others ranked among Baseball America’s top 20: Dominican shortstop Yunior Severino (No. 8), Venezuelan catcher Abrahan Gutierrez (No. 15) and Venezuelan shortstop Livan Soto (No. 16).
“It feels like something we’ve been building toward for close to two years,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said, “and to have it finally be done and get the players we wanted, it feels really good.”
Gutierrez, 16, received a $3.5 million bonus. Severino got $1.9 million and Soto, who turned 16 two weeks ago, got $1 million.
Maitan, who has drawn comparisons to Chipper Jones and Miguel Cabrera as teenagers, and Gutierrez were the two viewed as potential future stars by the Braves.
“From what our scouts say, (Maitan is) the best player to come out of Latin America in the last 10 years,” Coppolella said. “It’s so hard to find offense in this game, as we’ve seen, and he has a chance to be a really special player.”
He said of Gutierrez: “Very good catch-and-throw guy, big-time right-handed power. It’s like signing 1 and 1A, they’re both really good players and they were our top-two bonus guys by a large margin, and they’re a big part of our future.”
The Braves also signed Dominican right-handed pitcher Juan Contreras ($1.2 million), No. 41 on BA’s list; and highly regarded Colombian right-hander Guillermo Zuniga, and Dominican lefty Lisandro Santos.
Others included outfielders Antonio Sucre (Venezuela), Jefry Ramos (Dominican Republic) and Franger Carillo (Venezuela); infielder Braulio Vasquez (Dominican Republic), and catchers Adrian Adrianza (Venezuela) and 18-year-old Victor de Hoyos (Colombia), the only one of the group who’s older than 17.
Maitan has been a target of the Braves for nearly two years. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound switch-hitter already is an accomplished hitter with good strike-zone recognitition and “plus-power” on the scouting scale.
“First of all, he’s a 6.6 runner in the 60, so he can run,” Braves international scouting chief Gordon Blakeley said in February. “He has power from both sides of the plate, he can hit a ball out of a big-league ballpark now. He’s got good hands. He’s probably gonna end up 6-3, 215. For me, Chipper until he hurt his legs could play short, could play third, could have played center. Chipper could have done anything he wanted to do. Maitan reminds me a lot of Chipper Jones.
“Big-time power from both sides, and does it easy. Bat whip. Loves to play, loves to compete.”
Cabrera and Jones also came up as a shortstops before eventually moving to other positions. Maitan has the frame to add plenty of weight and muscle and could eventually switch positions, perhaps to third base.
The Braves and Padres were the big winners — and biggest spenders — on the first day of the signing period, with the Padres landing six of MLB.com’s top 30 prospects.
With the signings of Maitan and Gutierrez, the Braves had already exceeded their allowable bonus-pool limit, which was just below $5 million. In all, they spent $12 million or more in signing bonuses Saturday, and will pay a 100-percent overage tax on the entire amount above their pool allotment.
Exceeding the pool limit by more than 15 percent also means the Braves will be restricted to signing international free agents for bonuses less than $300,000 in the signing periods during the next two years, unless there are changes to baseball’s collective barganing agreement.
The Braves planned for more than a year to be among baseball’s biggest spenders in this year’s international signing period. They determined this would be an ideal year to do it, since deep-pocketed teams including the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs were on the sidelines, prohibited from signing international free agents to big bonuses after overspending in the past year or two and drawing the penalty the Braves will face in the next two years.
“That meant that we could get access to these players,” Coppolella said, “whereas (if those teams weren’t penalized currently) we might have had to pay more or got priced out if it had gotten to some crazy type of bidding war.”
The international free-agent market is a renewed area of emphasis since the front-office overhaul in October 2014 that including the hiring of top international scouts led by Blakeley, whom they hired away from the Yankees.
The Braves decided that focusing more on international markets and acquiring more June free-agent draft picks through trades, were two primary means of restocking their farm system, now rated among the best, if not the best in baseball.
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