Major League Baseball came down hard on the Atlanta Braves last week. For breaking rules regarding the signing of international prospects, among other offenses, the Braves’ farm system has been stripped of 13 players signed between 2015-2017. They’ve lost future draft picks and bonus pool money as well. The ruling was the harshest ever aimed at a team for circumventing the rules. Bad for the Braves, but from the rebuilding Tigers’ perspective, perhaps an opportunity.
Most of the players available aren’t going to impact the international free agent market too much. But there are several who will draw plenty of attention. The Tigers have only $159,000 left to spend in the 2017-2018 signing season, so if interested, they’ll have to dip into the 2018-2019 pool instead. Doing so is complicated by the likelihood that some part of the Tigers’ next bonus pool has already been earmarked for other players.
Teams break verbal agreements, but in the wake of the Braves’ transgressions, the Commissioner’s office is giving the hairy eyeball at any blatant shenanigans with international prospects. Rumors of broken — and technically illegal — verbal agreements may not go over well, though as illegal handshake agreements, the teenagers losing out don’t really have any recourse. Still, if you believe in Kevin Maitan, you have to do everything you can to sign him.
A few years ago, comps like Chipper Jones and Miguel Cabrera were made to describe the 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop’s ceiling. Reports have turned decidedly more restrained over the past year. Maitan struggled in rookie ball in 2017, and his body filled out a bit more than scouts expected. But Maitan is also still very young. The potential for him to be a switch hitter with power someday, even if only as a third baseman, is still in the cards.
Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs made it clear that Maitan’s stock had taken a real hit this summer.
“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.”
The Braves signed Maitan for $4.25 million in 2016. Any team offering him that much is putting their whole bonus pool in one basket, and many teams won’t see him as worth that risk at this point. But he’ll undoubtedly have plenty of suitors to choose from. Our sister site covering the Braves, Talking Chop, rated Maitan as the Braves’ third best prospect at mid-season, and presumably several teams who still view him in that light.
The Tigers have always had a strong presence and reputation in Venezuela, so one would assume the front office already has an opinion on Maitan’s outlook, for better or worse. If they believe in him, they should go all in and try to land the type of impact bat the farm system needs.
There are few other interesting positional prospects freed from the Braves beyond Maitan. Abraham Gutierrez is an 18-year-old catching prospect from Venezuela whose addition would really give the Tigers’ organization a pretty deep group at the catcher position. The Braves signed him in 2016 for $3.53 million despite his stock dropping late in that signing period.
Like Maitan, Gutierrez may have benefited from hitting his physical maturity a little earlier than other prospects his age. He didn’t impress with the bat in his first tour of the Gulf Coast League in rookie ball and while his catch and throw skills show potential, they’ll have to improve substantially to allow him to stick at catcher. His bat doesn’t look like it will play anywhere else in a major league lineup as yet. John Sickels of Minor League Ball has Gutierrez ranked just outside the Braves’ top 20 prospects in his end of the year rankings for 2017.
Yunior Severino is another interesting option for the Tigers as a switch-hitting middle infielder whose long-term home looks to be at second base. He showed off big time power for his age in the Gulf Coast League in 2017, slugging .444, but the all or nothing violence in his swing has scouts concerned about his contact abilities against the more advanced pitchers he’ll see in the A-ball levels. He struck out nearly 30 percent of the time in the GCL, but he’s also displayed considerable extra base power for that level. Severino signed for $1.9 million with the Braves, and seems unlikely to cost any more than that to an interested team.
Future projections for 3B Yenci Pena, may make him an appealing, more cost effective option over Maitan. He appears to have the tools to play the position long-term, and while he wasn’t nearly as highly thought of as Maitan, he may be more the Tigers’ speed in trying to land a potential future impact bat without blowing their entire bonus pool in one place. Talking Chop didn’t have Pena ranked in their top 30 at midseason, but Pena’s tools all appear to grade as average or better. He needs to translate his power into production with more fly balls and line drives, but the contact skills to do that may already be in place.
There are several hard-throwing young right handers the Tigers may be interested in from this group.
Juan Contreras is probably the most enticing of the bunch. The 18-year-old Dominican can touch 97 mph already, sitting in the mid-90s. His average frame isn’t really built for much more projection, and may not have the durability to stick as a starter. He already has a quality slider with nasty vertical break, but his high arm slot isn’t tailored to producing a good changeup. Contreras signed for $1.2 million in 2016.
Yefri Del Rosario may be the real find from the Tigers’ perspective. According to Longenhagen, scouts really like his athleticism, and he has the size, and smooth delivery to add velocity to a fastball that already sits in the mid-90s. He possesses an advanced curveball for an 18-year-old, and could prove the best of the bunch in the long-term.
The last of the key names is Colombian right-hander Guillermo Zuniga. The 19-year-old stands 6’3” and scouts like him to add size and velocity as he matures. His fastball sits in the low 90s, but he has an advanced curveball that many expect to draw plus grades with more repetition.
For years the Tigers stayed out of the deep end of the international market. They were rarely involved with expensive signing bonuses, though they found value in lesser signings of their own. And outside of Yoenis Cespedes, former owner Mike Ilitch never took a swing at any established major Cuban or Japanese free agents. The territory was ruled by big spenders and the Tigers had all their money on the field already. Now, the bonus pool system has brought substantially more parity and it’s time the Tigers started winning in the international market. The group of prospects lost to the Braves could hold a key piece to boost the Tigers’ rebuild.