On Tuesday, Major League Baseball levied punishments on the Atlanta Braves after completing an investigation into the club’s methods of talent acquisition. In addition to the departure of general manager John Coppolella (who was banned from baseball for life), special assistant Gordon Blakeley (who has been suspended for a year), and president of baseball operations John Hart, the Braves are losing 12 players signed during international free-agency periods ranging from 2015 to 2017. Scouting reports on those players, who are now free agents subject to international amateur bonus restrictions, are below.
In addition to losing these players, Atlanta will be barred from signing shortstop prospect Robert Puason, who isn’t eligible until the 2019-2020 IFA period, as well as Korean prospect Ji-Hwan Bae, who MLB found was offered “extra-contractual compensation.” In a similar vein, the Braves will lose their 2018 third-round pick in the domestic amateur draft for extra-contractual compensation violations involving 2017 second-round pick Drew Waters, a high-school outfielder. Waters is remaining with the Braves.
As further punishment, Atlanta will be prohibited from signing players international players for more than $10,000 during the 2019-2020 signing period, and their bonus pool will be cut in half for the 2020-2021 period.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement on the investigation and punishment details:
“During the 2015-16 international signing period, the Braves signed five players subject to the Club’s signing bonus pool to contracts containing signing bonuses lower than the bonuses the club had agreed to provide to players. The Club provided the additional bonus money to those players by inflating the signing bonus to another player who was exempt from their signing pool because he qualified as a ‘foreign professional’ under MLB rules.”
“As a result of the 2015-16 circumvention, the Braves were able to sign nine high-value players during the 2016-17 signing period who would have been unavailable to thhem had the Club accurately accounted for its signings during the 2015-16 signing period.”
Those players are the ones listed below, as well as 18-year-old Cuban OF Juan Carlos Negret (who spent 2017 in the DSL) and three players who were part of an illegal package deal — Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre — who had yet to make their pro debuts.
Below are the scouting reports on the prospects cut loose.
Kevin Maitan, INF
The crown jewel of the 2016 signing period, Maitan signed for $4.25 million out of Venezuela after a late push from Washington increased an earlier agreed-upon figure. Scouts were on Maitan early, around age 13 or 14, and monitored his development closely. By age 15, he was drawing comparisons to Miguel Cabrera and Chipper Jones. They thought he’d hit for average and power from both sides of the plate and, though he was likely to move to third base eventually, thought he had a non-zero chance to stay at shortstop. All-around talents like this are rare, and Maitan ranked No. 1 on our July 2 board in 2016.
I saw Maitan firsthand during his stateside debut in the 2016 Fall Instructional League. He had already thickened up quite a bit at that point and seemed likely to move to third base sooner than anticipated. But the bat speed, arm strength, and feel to hit were all as advertised. I left satisfied that Maitan, whom I had already projected to third base anyway, was as advertised.
Then 2017 reports started coming in. Scouts expressed concern over Maitan’s thickening body, some dropping a 30 on his lateral range at shortstop and projecting him over at first base. Others didn’t like his swing, citing stiffness and length. Pro scouts couldn’t understand what all the international fuss was about.
Maitan still has enviable bat speed and bat control, but any team that pursues him is pursuing a talented reclamation project, not a presently enticing talent. He’s still just 17 and it’s far too early to give up on Maitan as a prospect, but unless you view him using his amateur reports as context, you might not even think he is one.
Abraham Gutierrez, C
Also from Venezuela, Gutierrez’s frame started filling out early, and some international scouts believe he rose to the forefront of the 2016 J2 class simply because he had something resembling adult physicality sooner than his peers did. He signed for a lofty $3.53 million but ranked 23rd on that year’s July 2 board after scouts soured on him as signing day approached. He has viable catch-and-throw skills but will need to keep his frame in check to retain them as he ages. Offensively, the hit and power tools are fringey, requiring a long-term stay behind the plate for Gutierrez to be an everyday big leaguer. He spent 2017 in the Gulf Coast League.
Yunior Severino, INF
Signed for $1.9 million out of the Dominican Republic, Severino is a switch-hitting middle infielder with surprising power for his size. Scouts think his long-term defensive home is second base and are skeptical about his long-term ability to make contact. He takes big, violent swings but still hit .286/.345/.444 in the GCL this year.
Juan Contreras, RHP
Contreras touches 97 with his fastball and sits 92-95. There’s some effort to the delivery, but Contreras’s lower half is long and strong, and the arm works fine. His best secondary is a slider with purely vertical movement, a result of Contreras’ vertical arm slot. It flashes plus. It’s hard to generate any changeup movement from a slot like Contreras’s. Due to a combination of that arm slot, his size (a slightly built 6-foot-1), and issues with command (Contreras walked 21 hitter in 18 innings this year), there’s a good chance he’s only a reliever. He signed for $1.2 million in 2016.
Yefri Del Rosario, RHP
A Dominican righty who might be the most sought-after name on this list, Del Rosario signed for $1 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2016. Physically projectable, athletic, and the owner of efficient arm action, Del Rosario sits in the mid-90s with a potential plus curveball. Scouts have projected heavily on the changeup and command due to Del Rosario’s athleticism. He started the year in the Dominican Summer League but was quickly promoted to the GCL, where he struck out 36 hitters in 37.1 innings.
Livan Soto, INF
Another Venezuelan infielder from the 2016 class, Soto was considered a utility prospect by scouts who saw him this year due to a lack of physicality. He signed for $1 million.
Guillermo Zuniga, RHP
A Colombian righty, Zuniga was 18 when he signed as part of an illegal package deal. He’s a projectable 6-foot-3 with a fastball in the 88-93 range and a potential above-average curveball. His fluidity allows for command projection.
Yenci Pena, 3B
Pena is from the Dominican Republic and signed for $1 million. He has a big frame and above-average power projection. As he grows into that power, he’ll almost certainly move off of short and to third base. The actions, footwork, and arm strength will play there, possibly as plus.
As teams pursue these players, they’ll be restricted to signing them to bonus amounts governed by the current international-signing bonus pools, although, as a Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan reports, teams will be allowed to use their 2018-19 pool money to sign the Braves’ cast-offs.
Here are clubs’ remaining bonus pools for this year, as compiled by the Associated Press:
TEX: $3.53 million
MIN: $3.25 (after voiding the $3 mil bonus of INF Jelfry Marte)
This mess is complicated by the yet-unknown fate of the Japanese posting system and its impact on Shohei Otani’s potential earning power/signing restriction — and even more complicated by the presence of recently defected Cuban OF Julio Pablo Martinez, a short but athletic and tightly wound 21-year-old center-field prospect with speed and some pull power.
Many teams have deals in place with prospects for next year’s signing period, but teams have reneged on deals in the past, as the player/trainer have little recourse when that occurs, since the initial deals were technically illegal.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.