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Players of Interest from the Braves’ Signing Scandal

The Atlanta Braves have been hit with unprecedented penalties for international signing shenanigans. Could the Cardinals benefit from the situation?

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

In the comments section the other day, The Duke requested a post covering players recently lost by the Atlanta Braves who might be of interest to the Cardinals. For those of you who haven’t paid attention to what’s going on with Atlanta, the Braves’ now-former general manager John Coppolella was banned from baseball for life (i.e. he’s in the Chris Correa boat, minus the, um, jail time), and the Braves lost a bakers’ dozen of their recent international signees due to their attempts to circumvent the rules of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement over the past two years. If you want specifics, here’s a decent rundown of the pertinent facts and names involved in the whole deal.

Long story short: multiple members of the Braves’ front office conspired to get around MLB’s signing bonus limits. Baseball found out, baseball got mad, and now there are 13 young men on the free agent market available to sign.

Now, I will admit that I only sort of understand how the rules for signing any of these players breaks down. From what I read, it’s a weird, Byzantine system of determining how much the player’s bonus was, and how much it is, and then the difference counts against a team’s bonus pool from last year, which was the pertinent signing period, and...I don’t know. MLB seems like it’s trying to pretend as if the Braves never signed these players and rewrite history somehow, and the resulting list of rules seems as complicated as a literal time-travel story. I suppose the idea is to not give teams that were in the penalty phase last year, when these players were on the market, a free shot at them now; i.e. attempting not to penalise everyone else by benefiting a few clubs due to the Braves’s shenanigans. Okay. We’ll go with that.

The upshot, and the very good news, is this: the Cardinals, by dint of having already blown their bonus pool many times over last year and now being in the penalty phase themselves, could potentially just throw any amount of money they wanted at any or all of the players El Bravos lost. Sure, they wouldn’t pony up for Luis Robert, and won’t have a shot at Shohei Otani, but the Cards could purchase a large infusion of talent right now if they were willing to open the checkbook again for players they thought they had no shot at.

Now, admittedly I know very little about roughly half of the players the Braves lost, and for the most part the guys I don’t know I don’t think are super important as of yet. Always remember, these are sixteen and seventeen year old kids when they sign, and there’s such a distance from there to the big leagues, if they ever make it, that they could be almost completely different players by the time they get to the show. So obviously, we’re talking about raw materials, but materials that need an awful lot of polishing.

Here, though, are the players about which I do know a decent amount, and also believe could be interesting fits for the Redbirds to consider signing.

Kevin Maitan, SS/3B

Bats: Switch; Throws: Right

6’2” 190; DOB: 12 February 2000

Maitan was the consensus top prospect in the ‘16 international class, a hitting prodigy from both sides of the plate who also happened to possess a monster throwing arm and enough lateral quickness there was some hope he could remain a shortstop. Chipper Jones comps were thrown around, laughed off, the considered and waved off again, but without scorn the second time around. Sixteen year olds with offensive tools like Kevin Maitan simply do not come around very often, and he received a big bonus commensurate with the industry opinion regarding his talent.

Well, I hope I’m not spoiling anything for anyone, but Maitan’s first taste of professional did not go very well. He began the season in the Gulf Coast League playing for the Braves’ complex team, then was bumped up to Danville, in the Appalachian League (that’s Johnson City in Cardinal affiliate terms), and ended up playing most of the season there. The results were fairly ugly, as Maitan struck out 28% of the time, posted an ISO just over .100, and ultimately put a 60 in the wRC+ column.

The disappointing numbers were disappointing, hence why they are referred to as disappointing numbers, but worse than the spotty performance was the fact Maitan showed some maturity and conditioning issues. He showed up heavy in the spring, and never really got on track physically. He looked soft. He looked slow. He certainly didn’t look like a player with any kind of shot at playing shortstop. (Which, really, he was probably always destined for third base; he’s not 6’2” and a wiry waterbug, flitting around the infield. He’s 6’2” and broad across the chest — just larger framed in general than someone like, say, Delvin Perez.)

So Maitan struggled, looked out of shape, didn’t seem to be all that mature, and the industry has definitely decided he’s worth at least a caution flag.

And then, of course, there’s also the fact he was still seventeen all season. He won’t turn eighteen until almost Valentine’s Day. You know why he seemed immature? Because he’s seventeen. You know what I was doing at seventeen? Actually, this is a family blog; I shouldn’t say too much about what I was doing at seventeen. Did you know you can fit two adult-sized humans into the back seat of a 1991 Mustang convertible? What? Oh, no. That’s not related to anything. I’m just making conversation. Pro tip: parking a bright yellow car near the loading dock of a Shop ‘n Save around midnight is an excellent way to attract police attention. Also unrelated.

The tools for Maitan on offense are mostly still there. He still has excellent balance in his swing, easy natural loft, and plus bat-to-ball coordination. On the downside, his bat didn’t seem as quick this year as when he was an amateur, and he struggled with pitch recognition. That being said, in the Appy League he was facing players mostly three and four years older than himself, so the same sort of mental adjustments we have to make when considering Dylan Carlson’s numbers as an eighteen year old in full-season ball very much apply here to Maitan.

There’s still a ton of time for Maitan to turn things around. He wouldn’t be the first seventeen year old to get pudgy, after all. The lack of discipline and maturity is slightly concerning, but the good news there is that time runs in one direction only, so he’s at least 95% likely to get older from here on out. He needs to get back in top condition in order to hopefully show tools more representative of his stature last year and before, but he has time. The Cardinals were all over Maitan last year, in spite of the fact he was connected to the Braves basically since he was about fourteen, and even with the issues he showed this season I would expect them to have serious interest in him.

Yenci Pena, SS

Bats: Right; Throws: Right

6’2”, 175 lbs; DOB: 13 July 2000

Even younger than Maitan, Pena won’t turn eighteen until next July. That’s absurd.

Pena is also, at this point, probably as good a prospect as Maitan, at least to my eye. For starters, he’s not only much more likely to stay at shortstop long-term, there’s a chance he ends up a very solid defender there. As an amateur he showed excellent range and a strong arm, but he faces a similar risk as Maitan in that he might eventually just end up too big for the position. That’s far from a fait accompli with Pena, though, and I actually think the tools hold up well enough for him to stay up the middle. If not, he could be a plus third baseman with no trouble at all.

Pena’s assignment in 2017 was less aggressive than Maitan’s, as he played the whole season in the GCL. However, less aggressive doesn’t mean not aggressive, as placing a seventeen year old anywhere above extended spring training is showing a fair amount of confidence in the player. Better yet, Pena held his own very nicely in the GCL, putting up a 98 wRC+ in a little less than 200 plate appearances. I’ve seen video of him swinging the bat, and it’s a good swing, with a leg kick and some natural loft, and scouting the stat line he appears to have a real idea at the plate, with a 12.6% walk rate and just 16.3% K rate. There’s not much power to speak of yet, but that should come with time and maturity.

Pena is ridiculously young, shows at least a 55-grade hit tool, has a good chance to stay up the middle of play an above-average third base, and won’t turn eighteen until next summer. For me he’s an easy choice to go after as aggressively as necessary to get him into the system.

Livan Soto, SS/2B

Bats: Right; Throws: Right

5’10”, 160 lbs; DOB: 22 June 2000

Soto is one of the most intriguing players in this whole group to me, because despite being of smaller stature than any of the others I’m going to profile here, he also might possess the single most exciting tool, in the form of well-above average bat control and contact ability. He’s a line drive machine, and while he’s probably small enough that projecting even average power requires buying into significant physical development, there’s a potential future batting title winner waiting to happen in Soto’s profile.

He spent all season in the GCL at seventeen, same as Yenci Pena, and was even more impressive in terms of plate discipline and an overall maturity of approach. In just over 200 plate appearances, Soto walked more often than he struck out, 27 to 26, and showed a particular fondness for going the other way that should bode well for future high batting averages. He also has the defensive tools to stay up the middle, either at short or second base, with second maybe slightly more likely because the arm is closer to average than you might want from a shortstop. He’s certainly rangy enough for short, however.

The downside with Soto is he currently displays absolutely zero real power, even in batting practice, and will likely need to do a whole lot of developing if he’s ever going to drive the ball effectively. He was a switch-hitter as an amateur, but seems to have given up his lefty swing, putting him on the short side of the platoon advantage.

I really, really like Soto a whole lot. His profile and upside is probably something like the good version of Freddy Sanchez, and he’s currently not that much different from Jonatan Machado, the magic wand wielding outfielder the Cards signed out of Cuba last year. The Redbirds have seemingly priorised plate approach and the hit tool over the past handful of years, and Soto would fit perfectly into that mold.

Speaking of Cuban outfielders....

Juan Carlos Negret, OF

Bats: Right; Throws: Right

6’1”, 190 lbs ; DOB: 19 June 1999

Negret is not an undersized infielder with a plus hit tool and a need to grow up and add size, which at this point feels a little surprising for a player out of this group. Rather, Negret is a potential five-tool impact outfielder who already looks chiseled out of granite and shows incredible physical abilities.

In the course of things, writing up prospects, I have come to try and make my player comps across racial lines if at all possible. I do so for two reasons. One, it’s just less lazy, and a less shitty way of looking at people, I think. And two, more relevantly, forcing myself to not simply look at a player and immediately compare him to someone he happens to look like is better practice for actually scouting a player, I think. Forcing myself to consider a guy’s tools and the shape of his game and find a player who resembles that on the field, rather than just on a surface level, leads to a better understanding of the player.

That being said, there are times when a comp is simply too good a fit to not make it, even if it seems way too easy, and I can’t help but comp a player to someone who very much just plain looks the same. In this case, Juan Carlos Negret is so immediately reminiscent of Starling Marte, from the shredded build to the plus-plus speed to the weird penchant for getting hit by a huge number of pitches, that I can’t help but make it.

Like Marte, Negret has the potential to make an impact with his legs, both in the field and on the bases, where he swiped 23 of 32 bases in just 217 plate appearances. Now, that success ratio is good but not outstanding, so a bit more discipline in picking spots is probably a good idea, but the mere fact Negret was taking off that often is indicative of the kind of aggression and physicality he brings to the field. He’s got plus power potential, with a slight uppercut to his swing that should allow him to get the ball into the air consistently. He showed a fairly good approach at the plate this past summer, albeit with some swing and miss to his game, although he was still playing in the Dominican Summer League after getting his signing situation squared away. It’s loud contact when he does connect, and he showed a willingness to work counts that’s encouraging considering his youth and level of physical tools. Lots of players with this kind of raw talent try to simply out-athletic the competition; Negret appears more mature than that in his approach to the game.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of room for growth; obviously there is in an eighteen year old kid yet to make his way stateside. But Negret possesses the loudest tools of any player on this list, and also shows a high baseball IQ for his age and level of experience. He’s not Luis Robert, but he’s not that far off from that kind of profile.

Ji-Hwan Bae, SS

Bats: Left; Throws: Right

I’m going to be honest; I can’t find definite listed height and weight numbers for Bae, who has yet to even get far enough into pro baseball to have had concrete measurements taken. If I had to guess I’d say 5’10” and...165? That looks about right. But I reserve the right to be completely off on one or both of those numbers.

Bae is the most recent international signing on this list, as he came to terms with the Braves on a contract just over a month ago, choosing to sign with Atlanta rather than enter the amateur draft in the KBO. As such, there’s also hardly any video available on him, and I’m basically working with second-hand sources.

He’s considered a lock to stay at short, he gets 70 grades put on his speed, and he has outstanding contact ability. I’m sold. I haven’t seen more than about two at-bats, but he does the Ichiro running out of the box thing and gets down the line in a hurry. I wish I had more info, but there just isn’t that much out there yet, and international guys are not my normal oeuvre. But, hey, he looks wicked fast, plays up the middle, and people who see him hit give him high marks. Like I said, I’m sold.

There are a couple other interesting players among the thirteen the Braves are losing, including a couple hard-throwing right-handers who both look like relievers to me but could be worth going after, a catcher named Abraham Gutierrez with good contact skills and a strong arm, and a switch-hitting infielder with a decent blend of contact and power in his swing named Yunior Severino.

So which of these players covered here would I like to see the Cardinals sign? Simple: all of them. Since the bonuses for these guys apparently will all come from last year’s pool, the Cards don’t have any spending restrictions, and are free to grab as many of them as they can. Actually, that may or may not apply to Bae; I believe it does, but given he was in this current signing period the situation may be different. If he’s available, though, I would love to see the Cards go after him. I don’t know how many skinny, projectable middle infielders with solid plate discipline numbers the Cardinals need, but there are a whole bunch right now just laying around, waiting to be picked up. I think they should just grab as many of these guys as possible.

One last chance to spend that 2016 international pool money and pick up more talent for El Birdos. Let’s hope they take it.