One great thing about baseball is the fact that it is played all over the world, which gives fans an opportunity to see players from all different cultures come to play in the major leagues. The infusion of young international talent into professional baseball has placed a premium within that market and given teams greater incentive to spend on players as young as 15 in an attempt to find a hidden gem. Many teams are expected to be active this year, with the Atlanta Braves being one that is rumored to be heavily involved on a number of players.
Last week, MLB.com released its annual top-30 international prospects list, which included a number of high-profile talents that could one day join the major league ranks. Among these prospects, several are already considered to be leaning toward signing with one franchise or another, with the Braves expected to add six members of the top 30. If you have been paying attention to the extreme rebuild that is occurring in Atlanta, the Braves’ involvement in this process should come as no surprise. The organization has placed a premium on young, controllable talent that could help to jumpstart the franchise upon its move to nearby Cobb County.
Among the international players being connected to the Braves, the most intriguing name is shortstop Kevin Maitan of Venezuela. Currently ranked as the number one prospect in this year’s international free-agent market, Maitan has drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera, which is lofty praise at just 16. Maitan is considered by scouts to be a generational talent, giving the Braves incentive to potentially match the asking price that is rumored to be north of $4 million. In addition to Maitan, the Braves are connected to four more position players that are expected to sign this July, including a catcher named Abrahan Gutierrez who draws rave reviews for his defensive abilities behind the plate. If the Braves are able to secure the signatures of these top prospects, it would add be an impressive haul and potentially give the Braves a top-20 prospect in all of baseball in Maitan.
One thing to consider with regard to international signings is the upcoming expiration of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement in December. Many topics will be discussed during the meetings that could re-shape the game, but the one that could most effect the distribution of talent around baseball is the possible implementation of an international draft. This possibility creates a lot of incentive for teams to potentially spend big during this year’s international signing period, because next year it could be regulated in a much more strenuous manner.
In addition to potentially adding international free agents in July, the Braves own the third overall pick in next month’s First-Year Player Draft, which places them in position to add yet another premier prospect. With this pick the Braves have been linked to a number of players, ranging from college bats like Louisville outfielder Corey Ray and Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis to high school arms like Jason Groome and Riley Pint. In addition to the third selection, the Braves will have picks number 40 and 44, which gives them some interesting possibilities with regards to bonus pool allocation, as Tomahawk Take explains.
The basic principle behind a team manipulating its bonus pool is to create opportunity for overslot signings, which means that a player drafted with the 40th pick due to signability concerns can be paid similar to a player drafted much higher. This gives teams an opportunity to take desirable players later in the draft, a strategy that was employed by the Houston Astros in last year’s draft, when they selected a signable player with the second pick only to take Daz Cameron with the 37th pick. This is a bold way of approaching the draft, as it often requires a team to be cautious with its early selections, but can be very beneficial if questionably signable players are still on the board when the team has its next selection.
The combination of international signings and a sound draft strategy can be extremely beneficial to an organization, especially if major league payroll is an issue. Teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros have been notably aggressive when pursuing players through these avenues, and now both organizations are stocked with high-end talent that has allowed them to be creative with regards to payroll allocation. On-field success is never a guarantee regardless of how strong an organization’s farm system may be, but the more depth that is accumulated, the greater probability a team has of finding legitimate major league contributors.
A draft-centric approach is something that the Braves organization seemingly strayed from in years past, as draft picks were often discarded for the sake of signing free agents like Melvin Upton, Billy Wagner, or John Thomson. The farm system suffered as a result, and left the Braves with very little talent in the pipeline prior to the painful rebuild that the organization has endured over the past two seasons. Had the Braves been more conscious of the effects that signing risky free agents could have on the farm system, the necessity of rebuilding may have been much less dire when Braves president of baseball operations John Hart assumed control of personnel.
Along with a new approach to the draft, the Braves are seemingly re-introducing themselves to the upper-echelon international free agents that were prioritized much less in years past. Hart and newly appointed Braves general manager John Coppolella have stated on numerous occasions that the Braves would once again be major players internationally, which is evident by the rumors of the organization’s interest in Maitan. The Frank Wren era in Atlanta was not completely barren with regards to international signees, but the Braves gave large bonuses to players like Edward Salcedo and Christian Bethancourt, two players whom the organization deemed to be top-end prospects who would subsequently fail to live up to their billings. To miss on players in the international market is not uncommon, but again, to build a successful farm system it is often best to build depth in numbers first.
With all the prospective talent that is available and being linked to the Braves, it is hard not to get excited about the organization continuing to build what is already a top-5 farm system in baseball. Regardless of how the team approaches the draft, having the third overall selection puts them in position to draft a potential star. This coupled with the splash that the front office expects to make internationally could mean a huge infusion of talent to the organization. Though the major league team may leave much to be desired this season, this could be a very exciting summer in Atlanta.