Bill Shanks

Braves take next step in rebuilding process

bcabell@macon.com

Twenty-three years ago this weekend, the Atlanta Braves signed a skinny 16-year-old outfielder from Curacao. Andruw Jones played in Macon and made a name for himself at Luther Williams Field just two years later. Then in 1996, Jones hit the big leagues at 19 and became a star in the World Series.

Jones was probably the best international prospect ever for the Braves, but back then young players from outside the country didn’t get much publicity until they made it to the United States. Now, we might know of a 14-year-old in Venezuela who is looked at as the next-best prospect.

That’s how old Kevin Maitan was when his name first hit the internet. It was the fall of 2014 when reporters who cover international prospects mentioned Maitan as a future star. And even then Maitan was linked to the Braves.

But everyone had to wait until Saturday to see if the reported handshake agreement between the Braves and Maitan’s representative would stand. Even Friday there were rumors the Washington Nationals were trying to swoop in and steal Maitan from the Braves, but there was never really any doubt. On Saturday, the Braves signed Maitan, considered the best prospect available in the international class this year, to a reported $4.25 million bonus.

Maitan is perhaps the best international prospect since Miguel Sano, signed by the Minnesota Twins seven years ago. Maitan has been compared to Miguel Cabrera, Juan Gonzalez, and to put a Braves spin on it, even Chipper Jones.

The Braves have added a shortstop and a switch-hitter who is already 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. Scouts love Maitan’s swing, and they project him to become a power hitter who can hit 20 to 25 home runs per season. With his lean frame at this age, Maitan might get taller and need to move to third base.

Yeah, that sounds like Chipper Jones, doesn’t it?

Maitan will not play until next season, when he’ll likely be in rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League. Then in 2018, Maitan will likely be in Rome in Low Single-A. If he spends one full year at each level, Maitan might not reach Atlanta until 2022. But if Maitan is really as good as advertised, or if he can become as good as Andruw Jones was, he might make it to the majors before then.

The Braves signed more heralded position players, including Venezuelan catcher Abraham Gutierrez, who has been compared to a young Mike Piazza. Gutierrez signed for $3.5 million. There are more infielders, including Yunior Severino (Dominican Republic) and Livan Soto (Venezuela). Another infielder, Yenci Pena, could be added in two weeks when he turns 16. All three will have bonuses of more than $1 million.

Overall, the Braves signed 10 position players and three pitchers Saturday. That emphasis on position players complements the strategy to target pitchers in the amateur draft. Seven of Atlanta’s top 10 draft picks last month were pitchers, and the Braves have prioritized pitchers in rebuilding the farm system since the current front office took over in October 2014.

The Braves already had one of the best minor league systems in baseball. Even though the players signed Saturday might not play enough until next year to be fully evaluated for a prospect list, there’s little doubt the success the Braves had with this class will only elevate the status of the farm system.

Saturday was crucial in the Braves’ rebuilding process. They’ve made trades and had two drafts to bring in more talent. But in searching for the next Andruw Jones, signing a bunch of 16-year-olds this weekend may turn out to be just as important if the Braves are to get back on track in the next few years.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanks

show@yahoo.com.

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