As you have no doubt heard, the Braves had a lousy Thanksgiving week as MLB announced that the team had broken the rules regarding the signing of international free agents. So commissioner Rob Manfred brought down the axe and banned former Atlanta general manager John Coppolella for life. But also, 12 players from the 2015 and 2016 international signing periods were declared free agents.
For the players, it’s a sweet deal. They get to keep the bonuses the Braves gave them (plus the under-the-table money the Braves got in trouble for) as well as whatever bonuses their new team gives them. The downside is that they may have wanted to play for Atlanta, but there was no guarantee that they end up playing in Atlanta anyway.
Might the Cubs be interested in these Thanksgiving leftovers?
As you know, the Cubs have been in the “penalty box” for the past two signing periods and have been forbidden from signing any international amateur for more that a $300,000 bonus. However, because these players were declared free agents after most teams have blown their bonus pool money for 2017 (and those who haven’t are saving it for Shohei Ohtani), the commissioner has declared that teams can break into their 2018 bonus money early. Since the Cubs will be out of the “penalty box” in 2018, they have no limits that any other team does not also have, except for a smaller bonus pool because the Cubs won a lot of games.
Now what we don’t know is what the Cubs have planned for this money. By this point in the international amateur market, the Cubs probably already have an idea of how much money it will cost to sign the players in the 2018 international scouting period that they’ve been scouting for years. So we really don’t know how much money the Cubs have available to sign these players or whether or not they are willing to end negotiations with an international kid to sign one of these free agents. And unlike in previous years when the Cubs blew out their international signings, the international bonus pool is now a hard cap. There’s no going over it one year and spending the next few in the sin bin.
We also have no idea what it is going to cost to sign any of these players. This kind of situation is pretty unprecedented.
These players can sign with new teams between December 5 up until January 15.
So are the Cubs interested in any of these players? Sure, if the price is right. But we have no idea what the price is going to be or how much the Cubs value them. But here’s a rundown of some of the top players who are now free agents and my opinion of how interested the Cubs should be in them.
- Kevin Maitan. Maitan is the big name here and the one that will probably get the most attention, even though his star has dimmed quite a bit from when he was the hot 15-year-old from Venezuela. Maitin is a switch-hitting shortstop who drew comparisons to Chipper Jones and Miguel Cabrera before he signed.
But things have changed since then. Maitan arrived in the US this year and scouts got their first look at him in three years, really. (Other teams stopped scouting Maitan in Venezuela when it became clear he was signing with the Braves.) What they saw wasn’t nearly as impressive. He’d put on a lot of weight, meaning he looked more like Cabrera does now than what Cabrera did as a 17-year-old. Teams knew he’d have to move off of short to third base in the professional ranks, but now teams are starting to think he’ll need to move to first base. On top of that, his hands seemed slower and his swing stiffer than what was in the old reports. Maitan only hit .220/.273/.323 with just two home runs in 33 games in the Appalachian League.
However, even as a diminished prospect, Maitan is still a top prospect. His line in the Appy League looks poor, but a 17-year-old in America for the first time in the Appy League is a tough assignment. I doubt anyone will give Maitan another $4.25 million (plus kickbacks), but Maitan is likely to get another seven-figure bonus. It would surprise me if the Cubs were willing to dip into next year’s budget for a bonus that big for Maitan, but again, I have no idea what they have planned for that money. If it’s just sitting around, then I can see the Cubs getting involved, thinking that they can fix him.
2. Yunior Severino. Severino is another switch-hitting infielder with some pop. Severino is a second baseman from the Dominican Republic who signed for $1.9 million in 2016. Severino may be a bat-first infielder at the moment, but he just turned 18 last month and has a whip-like swing through the zone. Severino put up some impressive numbers for a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .286/.345/.444 with three home runs over 189 at-bats.
If Jim Hendry were still the Cubs GM, Severino is the kind of athletic, high-ceiling guy the Cubs would be all over. But Severino does have one weakness and it’s that he struck out 61 times with only 16 walks last season. He’s got a long way to go to learn how to command the strike zone. I’m sure that the Cubs would be interested if the price were right, but he doesn’t strike me as the type of player the Cubs are interested in these days.
3. Yefri Del Rosario. A right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic who signed for $1 million in 2016, Del Rosario is the one player on this list whose stock has risen since arriving in the US. Rosario just turned 18 in September and he went 1-1 with a 3.90 ERA in the GCL in 2017. He throws 91-94 and can touch 97, which is where he might sit if a team were to turn him into a reliever. He also has a promising curve ball and his change isn’t bad for a 17-year-old. A cross-body delivery might mean there’s arm trouble or a move to the bullpen ahead, but Del Rosario is exactly the type of pitcher that the Cubs have been stocking up on lately. Whether they’re willing to outbid other teams for him is another matter.
4. Abraham Gutierrez. Another Venezuelan, Gutierrez is a big (6’2”, 214 lbs.) catcher who just turned 18 on Halloween. The Braves signed him for $3.53 million in 2016, although most observers thought it was an overpay. So far, Gutierrez has shown some exceptional skills on defense, in particular his throwing arm and his ability to block pitches. His game management skills are still poor, but what do you expect from a 17-year-old? The biggest question on Gutierrez is whether or not he’ll hit. He hit .264/.319/.357 in the GCL last summer, but scouts are pretty down on his hit tool. Some think his size will lead to power in the future, but there’s an issue of whether he’ll make enough contact to tap into it.
You can never have too many good defensive catchers in your system. The Cubs won’t come anywhere close to what the Braves gave him as a bonus, but I can see them being interested.
5. Juan Contreras. A wiry right-handed pitcher signed out of the Dominican Republic for $1.2 million, Contreras can light up a radar gun. His fastball currently sits at 94-97 mph and scouts think he could add some more velocity if he puts some weight on his 6’2” frame. He be a lot more in demand if he hadn’t walked 21 batters in 18.2 innings in the GCL last year. Control is a serious problem for Contreras and even if he gets that under control, he’s probably a reliever in the majors. But velocity is still velocity. Some team will take a gamble on his arm, but I don’t think it will be the Cubs. Although they did seem to get Dillon Maples straightened out somewhat.
6. Livan Soto. Soto is a short, quick shortstop whose value will almost certainly be on defense. He can stay at short, but right now, pitchers can overpower him at the plate. He hit just .225/.332/.254 in 47 games in the GCL last year. But he was extraordinarily young for that league, not turning 17 until June 22. He may yet add some strength and maybe even some height onto his (generously measured) six-foot tall body. He probably projects out to be a utility player in the majors, but he’s young and talented enough that there’s a lot of “ya never know” in there.
7. Ji-Hwan Bae. The Korean shortstop wasn’t in the Braves organization very long. He bypassed the Korean Baseball Organization draft (where he was expected to be among the first few picks) and signed with the Braves on September 23. Two months later, he was a free agent again. (Technically, he was never in the Braves organization because MLB refused to approve the contract, as the Braves were already under serious investigation at the time.)
I don’t know much about Bae except that he’s supposed to be a speedy shortstop who projects to stay at the position. There have been some good players coming over from Korea in recent years, so he’s probably worth a look, even if just for his glove.
8. Yenci Pena. Pena is a tall, young, right-handed hitting Dominican who has a chance to stay at shortstop. He hit just .230/.328/.327 in the Dominican Summer League this year, but he was only 16 (he turned 17 in July) and he showed some nice strike zone judgement as he walked 23 times and struck out just 31 in 165 games. He also stole 7 bases, albeit in 13 attempts. From the YouTube video I watched of him taking an at-bat, he’s seems to have some power potential there. (With the standard caveat that you should never draw any conclusion from one AB on YouTube. But that’s in line with what I’ve read elsewhere.)
Other players who were declared free agents are Colombian RHP Guillermo Zuniga, Cuban OF Juan Carlos Negret, Venezuelan OF Antonio Sucre along with Angel Sucre and Brandol Mezquita.
So who on this list interests you? Do you think the Cubs could get a great deal on a pre-owned prospect?