Braves expected to land ‘big fish’ Maitan on Saturday

After the Braves’ front-office overhaul in October 2014, the team’s head honchos said that scouting and signing international free agents would be emphasized far more than it had been in recent years. They hired a few high-profile international scouts to head up the department and make sure they did it right, led by Gordon Blakeley, lured away from the Yankees after signing a slew of top international players over the years including Robinson Cano, Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras.

Kevin Maitan has been compared to, gulp, a young Chipper Jones. (Phil Skinner/AJC file photo)

Kevin Maitan has been compared to, gulp, a young Chipper Jones. (Phil Skinner/AJC file photo)

On Saturday, that Braves emphasis will fully come to fruition when the Braves are expected to spend as much and perhaps more than any other other major league franchise on a handful of top free agents from the international free-agent signing pool. Most are 16- and 17-year-olds from the talent-rich Dominican Republic and Venezuela, led by Kevin Maitan, the consensus No. 1 prospect of the bunch and a player whom Baseball America called the best international amateur prospect since Miguel Santo signed with the Twins in 2009.

Maitain, a Venezuelan, turned 16 in February and is already big and strong (6-2, 175), with no weaknesses in his game according to those who’ve scouted him the most – and there have been plenty, considering this kid has had the attention of major league teams since he was 13. Yes, 13.

He’s expected to get a record signing bonus of around $4 million and it’s been known around baseball for months that the Braves are the heavy favorites to sign him, as evident by the Braves gear Maitain has been photographed in several times.

(Working out deals beforehand with players is illegal, but everyone around baseball understands and accepts that it happens routinely with these top young free agents; if you’re not willing to do such arrangements you aren’t likely to get the top picks.)

A switch-hitter with power, athleticism and good defensive skills including a strong arm, many believe Maitan will eventually move to third base as he adds more weight and muscle. And if that profile reminds you of anyone in recent Braves history, well, you’re not alone.

“My comparison when I talked to our people was Chipper Jones,” said Blakeley, and by “our people” he meant Braves officials whom he quickly convinced that Maitan should be the guy the Braves didn’t let slip to another team, since any and every team that seriously taps this international vein of talent had interest in Maitan.

Here’s what else Blakeley had to say about Maitan when I talked with him in February.

“First of all, he’s a 6.6 runner in the 60, so he can run. He has power from both sides of the plate, he can hit a ball out of a big league ballpark now. He’s got good hands. He’s probably gonna end up 6-3, 215. For me, Chipper until he hurt his legs could play short, could play third, could have played center. Chipper could have done anything Chipper wanted to do . Maitan reminds me a lot of Chipper Jones.

“Big time power from both sides, and does it easy. Bat whip. Loves to play, loves to compete.”

And this: “We think we’ll get him, we think we have a good chance. In the long run, he’s the best player in the international market. Somebody we’ve focused in on for the last year-and-a-half. We want to land him. To me, he’s the big fish… It’s our opinion as a staff that Kevin is the best potential player in the world for July 2.”

By the way, Blakeley is a colorful character, a scout with a reputation for working tirelessly to get his man, for spending weeks and months on end in Latin American countries. Every time I’ve seen him he’s had on a track-suit type warmup jacket zipped all the way up, looking cool, which makes him stand out a bit in a crowd of typically more conservatively dresssed baseball men. His passion for baseball and scouting are apparent about 20 seconds into any conversation with Blakeley, who lives and breathes this stuff.

The rules – and accomodations — when pursuing players are not what most folks here in the United States are accustomed to, and having the right contacts cultivated through years and years of experience are huge pluses.

How much time does Blakeley spent in Latin American countries?

“It just depends on what’s going on,” he said. “The international market is different (than scouting draftable players) because you can sign a player every day. So quite frankly, if something pops up, you’re down there. With all the (defecting) Cubans running down there, we’re down there a lot. Because whether you want to sign them or not, you at least want to evaluate them.

“Back in the day, you used to be able to go in and sign a guy for $3,000, $4,000. A guy would call me on the phone and I’d say yeah, go ahead and sign the guy. Now the money’s so big, you can’t do that.”

Also, check the trepidation at the door. Scouting for players far off the beaten path in foreign lands is certainly not for everyone. Particularly in a place like Venezuela, where economic crisis has led to social unrest and ever-increasing violence in recent years. The homicide and kidnapping rates there are among the highest in the world.

“You’ve got be careful, you really do,” Blakeley said. “I travel with armed guards (in Venezuela), one in the back seat, one in the front.”

Many teams have recommend against or even forbid players from playing winter ball in the Venezuela in the past few years, and some are also reluctant to send scouts there on a regular basis.

“I’m sure our guys are a little worried about me going down there,” Blakeley said. “The problem is, the players are so darn good. You can’t have a good team unless you have good players. You’ve got to have them from everywhere. From U.S., from Venezuela, from Dominican, from Japan. I mean, you’ve got to try and get the best guys. You try to put the best product on the field for your fans.

“And what’s good about Atlanta fans, too, is, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. There’s no prejudice, for me, from our fans. If you’re a good player, they love you, no matter where you’re from or what color you are. That’s what’s awesome.”

• Let’s close with this one from my man Jason Isbell, a great dude, a big Braves fan, and as fine a songwriter as has come along the past couple of decades.

“TRAVELING ALONE” by Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

Mountain’s rough this time of year
Close the highway down
They don’t warn the town
I’ve been fighting second gear for fifteen miles or so
Trying to beat the angry snow
And I know every town worth passing through
But what good does knowing do with no one to show it toAnd I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me, won’t you ride
Won’t you ride?

I quit talking to myself
And listening to the radio a long, long time ago
Damn near strangled by my appetite
In Ybor City on a Friday night
Couldn’t even stand upright
So high, the street girls wouldn’t take my pay
She said come see me on a better day, she just danced away

And I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me, won’t you ride
Won’t you ride?

Pain in the outside lane, I’m tired of answering to myself
Heart like a rebuilt part, I don’t know how much it’s got left
How much it’s got left

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me, won’t you ride
Won’t you ride?

 


View Comments 0