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Starting Nine: As Braves circle Ambioris Tavarez, breaking down their best international signings

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Andruw Jones, Ronald Acuña Jr. and the internationals that have helped shape the franchise

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Atlanta Braves
Two of the Braves’ best international signees in the forms of Curaçao natives Andruw Jones and Ozzie Albies.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Rejoice, the handcuffs are coming off — at least partially — when it comes to the Braves and the international signing period.

The sanctions, put in place in 2017 in the wake of former general manager John Coppolella being ostracized from baseball, cost Atlanta 13 prospects (hi, Kevin Maitan) and it was prohibited from inking any international players for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, bringing in 17 prospects under that dollar amount. But during the upcoming 2020-21 period, which was delayed from a July 2 start to Jan. 15, the Braves will be able to finally be players again.

They’ll be operating with a bonus pool cut by 50 percent to $1,572,000. It’s by far the lowest in baseball — which is topped by the Brewers, Marlins, Rays, Reds, Tiger and Twins at $6,431,000 — was further trimmed by the one million Atlanta had to cough up after signing Marcell Ozuna last January after he turned down a qualifying offer from the Cardinals and hampered by MLB limiting pool trades to acquire more money.

But the Braves are in position to sign their most notable international since the now infamous 2016 class that included six players at bonuses of a million or more, topped by Maitan at $425,000. The focus is on Dominican infielder Ambioris Tavarez, and it may take the brunt of their available proceeds to wrap up the 17-year-old.

As they circle around Tavarez, the Starting Nine looks back at the Braves’ success in a market where they’ve landed a couple of Curaçao kids and a Pheñom. These are Atlanta’s nine best international signings.

1. Andruw Jones

While the Hall of Fame debate goes on with Jones in his fourth year on the ballot, there’s no argument he should be atop this list. The Braves had their sights on him at 15, then signed him at 16 for a mere $46,000 in 1993. Jones debuted three years later and would go on to win 10 Gold Gloves in 12 years in Atlanta, make five All-Star teams and hit 51 home runs in 2005 en route to a runner-up National League MVP finish. From 1996-2007, only three players had a better fWAR than Jones: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and longtime teammate Chipper Jones. The next guy on this list is off to a strong start, but as Chipper said at Andruw’s Braves Hall of Fame induction in 2016: “I don’t care what any of the old-timers say, [he] was the best defender, maybe at any position, I’ve ever seen.”

2. Ronald Acuña Jr.

The Braves thought they had a future star in the 2014 signing period ... but it wasn’t Acuña. On July 2 of that year, Atlanta inked Venezuelan infielder Juan Yepez for $1 million, while adding six more to six-figure deals, led by Isranel Wilson at $350,000. Acuña, who Baseball America called “toolsy with average raw power” signed for a mere $100,000, and all he’s done is collect hardware and carve out a spot as one of the game’s best players through his first three seasons. He’s earned 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, two-time Silver Slugger winner and All-Star, while Yepez was dealt for Matt Adams in 2017 when Freddie Freeman broke his wrist and Wilson has never progressed past High-A.

3. Rico Carty

The Braves’ all-time leader in fWAR in left field, and by a substantial margin — with Carty at 25.1 nearly seven wins above the next-best player, Sid Gordon — the Dominican had no shortage of suitors in 1959. Eight teams came calling, and Carty signed ... with all of them. George Trautman, the head of minor-league baseball, settled the ensuing dispute and gave Carty’s rights to the Milwaukee Braves. He played his first full major league season in 1964, finishing second to Dick Allen in NL Rookie of the Year balloting and had his finest season in 1970 when Carty led MBL with a .366 average and .454 on-base percentage. He’d spend eight years in Milwaukee and Atlanta, slashing .317/.388/.496 and since World War II, his .884 OPS is second to Hank Aaron’s .994 among Braves outfielder with at least 3,000 plate appearances.

4. Javy Lopez

The Expos offered Lopez $50,000 and the Padres came in at $75,000, but the catcher would settle with the Braves for $37,000 in 1987 because he wasn’t blocked at the position with current backstop Ozzie Virgil north of 30 and the fact that TBS allowed his family in Puerto Rico to see his games. As Lopez disclosed in his book “Behind The Plate: A Catcher’s View of the Braves Dynasty,” his dad was adamant that when they made the announcement on his 17th birthday they say Lopez signed for $90,000. He’d become a three-time All-Star and in 2003, his final season in Atlanta, Lopez posted a top-five MVP finish and earned a Silver Slugger as he bashed 43 home runs. Those HRs are the second most in a single season by any catcher for any team, trailing only Johnny Bench’s 45 in 1970.

5. Julio Teheran

He was the best arm in the 2007 international class when he signed for $850,000 and rose to being the game’s No. 2 pitching prospect in 2012, ahead of the likes of Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole. The Colombian may have never lived up to those ace expectations, but his nine seasons in Atlanta were anything but a failure. They included two All-Star Games and he was dependable, making 30 or more starts every year and was innings-eater, with the fourth-most logged from 2013-19 (better than Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw). Along the way he also set a franchise record, making six straight Opening Day starts.

6. Ozzie Albies

Like his “besibol hermano” Acuña, Albies wasn’t the central figure in his signing class. Said to have “limited power projection because of his size” per Baseball America, Albies was brought in for $350,000, while left-handed pitcher Luis Barrios and his $600,000 price tag were considered the Braves’ biggest get. Barrios never made it higher than rookie ball, where he had a 21.60 ERA in four starts in 2016, while Albies has rattled off fWARs of 3.8 and 4.6 in two 162-game seasons and surpassed that power expectation with back-to-back 24-home run campaigns in 2018 and ‘19. Years from now, he’s easily in the top three on this list as he adds consistency to his game.

7. Martin Prado

It’s unlikely to happen as he was fired after the Coppolella scandal, but eventually the Braves Hall of Fame needs to open its doors to Rolando Petit. The scout, who signed Acuña, Albies and Teheran, among a multitude of others during his 27 years, also brought on Prado for a mere $5,500 in 2001. Prado ended his 14-year career after 2019 and had his most productive seasons in Atlanta, including a 3.7 fWAR during an All-Star 2010 that was cut short by injury and still saw him post a top-10 MVP finish, and he was a 4.5 fWAR player a year later.

8. Rafael Furcal

Like Prado, the Braves got Furcal for a paltry sum, signing the 17-year-old (or so they thought) for $5,000 in 1996. Furcal’s actual age became an issue when he was arrested and charged with drunken driving and underage consumption in 2000. He was believed to be 19 at the time, but reports said he was 21. Furcal refuted those claims, but in 2002, on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and more extensive background checks, he reported for spring training having aged two years. Now matter his age, Furcal delivered six strong seasons with the Braves, winning Rookie of the Year in 2000 and an All-Star 2003 and he hit above league average in three of those years before he joined the Dodgers as a free agent in 2005.

9. Cristian Pache

Part of the same 2015 international class as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., Pache’s place on this list is about the possibilities for what’s to come. The 14th-ranked player in that year’s signees, signing for $1.4 million, Pache has delivered at every level and been lauded for a defensive skillset that’s long been likened to the No. 1 player on this list, Andruw Jones. The bat remains a developing piece of Pache’s game, with the 22-year-old getting all of four plate appearances during the regular season before Adam Duvall’s injury thrust him onto the postseason stage, where he hit .182/.280/.364 in 22 at-bats. But he figures to be a key piece of the Braves for years to come as their center fielder of the immediate future.