When was the first time you heard of Ronald Acuna, Jr? Be honest.
If you said 2014 and your name is not “Kiley McDaniel,” you’re probably lying.
Acuna was signed as an international free agent in 2014. That season the Braves had limited funds to spend on the international market. Their monies were tied up in Major League albatross contracts for Melvin Upton and Dan Uggla. They were not players for any of the major names of that year’s international free agency class. Their newly promoted GM wunderkind was strategizing a new approach, hoarding international free agent dollars for a big splash two years to come. In 2014, the Braves were looking at low key, lesser known guys. Prospects who wouldn’t cost more than a few hundred thousand or so to sign. Fliers.
One of those guys was the son of a former minor leaguer who had a connection to the team. Ron Acuna, Sr had been player in the late 90’s. Rolando Petit, a longtime scout in his native Venezuela, had watched him work out. Ron’s son was also a player. Petit still worked the territory for the Braves. The same guy that scouted Dad back in the day signed his kid for $100k. Not a million dollars. Not 6 million dollars. One hundred thousand dollars.
Ronald Acuna, Jr was a lottery ticket.
He debuted as a professional in 2015. He split the short rookie league season between two squads. First up was Danville of the Appalachian League. Then a mid-season call-up to the franchise run Gulf Coast League Braves.* He did reasonably well at both stops. Not outlandishly well; reasonably well. 290/388/464 (851) in the APPY. 258/376/424 (800) at the GULF. That’s a solid, if unspectacular debut. Especially for a kid who was playing two and a half to three years younger than the respective leagues. Showed promise to be sure. Earned next year’s promotion to A-ball certainly. But Ronald Acuna, Jr still wasn’t a name brand prospect at this point. Not yet. You still hadn’t heard of him.
[ED: *In fact Acuna debuted in the Gulf Coast League, and then was promoted to Danville. The GCL is the lower level of “rookie league” baseball]
Acuna opened 2016 at single-A Rome. Again, he put up good but not otherworldly numbers. He was strong out of the gate, but then his season was derailed by injury. On May 13 Acuna was placed on Rome’s 7-day DL. He would not return to game action until August 22. He was reactivated and played a couple of rehab games back in the GULF before returning to Rome. There he played out the remainder of the South Atlantic League’s season. His combined line for all of 2016 was 312/392/429 (821). Again, a solid 800+ OPS while once more playing against competition three and a half years older than him. But you still hadn’t heard of him.
At this point he starts getting noticed a little. MLB Prospect Watch drops him into the #18 spot on their 2016 list of Braves. Right between Rio Ruiz and Dustin Pederson. Minor League Ball had him at #16, two slots behind world-killer Braxton Davidson. He didn’t break B-Pro’s top ten for 2016, nor was he included in their “five who are just interesting” list of also-rans. (Johan Camargo and Future Hall of Famer Mallex Smith were.) By now, deep prospect hounds are probably hearing his name, but they’re not talking about him with bated breath. He’s an interesting kid who lost half a season in A-ball. He’s not Dansby Swanson (#1) or Ozzie Albies (#3) in the pipeline. He’s not Kevin Maitan, who we hear the Braves are the favorites to sign!
In the winter between the minor league seasons of 2016 and 2017, Acuna was sent to Australia. He had just missed half or more of his A-ball campaign to injury and as a developing player, he needed at bats. The Australian Baseball League plays a short season during the summer month’s down under, which is usually off-season in America, because Oz is quite literally on the other side of the planet. Up is down, left is right, and winter is baseball season.
The AUBL is generally populated by MLB or MiLB washouts, foreign league journeymen, aging vets who still want to play the game a little, and Dave Nillson’s kids. Acuna was six years (6!) younger than the average player during his stint there. He hit 375/446/556 for a cool 1.001 OPS. He destroyed the league. But then again, so did David Rodriguez and Donald Lutz. Go ahead. Look those guys up. I’ll wait.
Be honest. If you’re not Kiley McDaniel, this is when you first heard of Ronald Acuna, Jr.
Coming off his destruction of the AUBL, the Braves promoted Acuna to their advanced A+ affiliate in Florida. This is, of course, where the mythos really kicks into high gear. He opens 2017 with an 814 OPS for the Fire Frogs (-3.8 years against league) He jumps up to AA Mississippi where he improves on that, posting an 895 (-5 years against the league.) Another bounce up the ladder where he proceeds to destroy AAA. With Gwinnett (-7.8(?!!?) years against the league) he drops a 940. The Braves keep this ship running full steam ahead and send him to Arizona for the Fall League. The OPS jumps to 1.053 (-3.5 years against the league.)
By now you have heard of Ronald Acuna. Everyone has. He is now not only the #1 prospect in the Braves system. Depending on how your rate Shohei Ohtani he may also be the #1 prospect in all of baseball. He is now officially RONALD FREAKING ACUNA, THE NEXT GREAT ATLANTA BRAVE!
The rest is common knowledge. Spring training invite. 432/519/727 (1.247) Sillyball numbers. Utter domination. The Boy Who Hits. Etc. Et al. And then the reassignment. Cue the sturm and drang. Bring on the professional wailers and paid mourners. Let us all gather together and spit into the wind about a transaction absolutely guaranteed by the current MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement. Let us gather around the fire and damn the evil suits for their Evil Suityness. Yes, yes. Let it out. Come together, bruhs and lady-bruhs. Shout with me. Primal scream therapy is only a crock of shit if you believe in science.
Okay. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, can we take a minute? Can we maybe step back a hair’s breadth from the precipice and reassess?
Ronald Acuna, who has played past his father’s minor league career and no longer requires the “Jr”, is a absolute phenom. He’s amazing. He’s had a stretch of baseball over the last 18 months that has been almost unreal. And he is 19.
Ronald Acuna played 55 games in Rookie ball when he was 17. 237 plate appearances.
Ronald Acuna played 42 games in A-ball (+2 rehab games back at Rookie level) when he was 18. 179 plate appearances. He played 20 games in Australia that winter. 83 plate appearances.
Prior to last year, Ronald Acuna had played in all of 117 professional baseball games. Less than a three quarters of a Major League season’s slate. 499 plate appearances; 427 official at bats.
In 2017, inclusive of the AFL, he saw 139 games, 612 PAs, and 557 at bats.
The arguments that Acuna is ready to break camp with the Braves, and that he is by far their best LF option, are hard to ignore. Impossible to ignore, really. His last 18 months of baseball have been otherworldly. Jaw dropping. Mind blowing. His reassignment to the minor league camp, and his next few weeks playing in Gwinnett rather than Cobb County is driven almost entirely by the financial games of MLB’s arbitration and free agency rules.
That said, he is a 19-year-old kid who has never played more than 140 games in a single year. Until last year he was an interesting but not terribly inspiring youngster with extremely limited exposure, in a sea of minor league possibilities. He’s never played a full year with a single club. He’s never been in a league long enough for opposing pitchers to develop a book on him. He’s never struggled. He’s never had to adjust to better pitchers than his natural skills can handle. He’s never had to deal with failure.
All of these are things Ronald Acuna will eventually face. And there are actual good reasons to want him to face them in the lower pressure environment of the minor leagues, rather than in the glaring spotlights of The Show. Good baseball reasons. Good human being development reasons. No, I do not think those reasons are the driving force behind his reassignment this spring. I acknowledge that move to be driven almost entirely by the CBA. That said…
Given the reality of arb and free agency clocks; given the actual career of the prospect to date; given how young the kid is… I can personally justify sending him down, not only as “smart business” but also as “smart player development.” Yes, I am aware that he crushed spring training into a bloody pulp. I am aware that he is far more talented than any other outfielder the team has available to them in 2018.
I am also aware that he is a teenager who has never once in his life faced adversity on the diamond. I am aware that his entire professional career to date is barely longer than the first season of Firefly. I am aware of the fact that the average quality of pitcher he faced in this year’s spring at bats was just below what you’d expect to see in AA. B-Ref has an OppQual measure they generate with spring stats. 7 is AA caliber. 8 is AAA. 10 is MLB quality. Acuna’s average OppQual rating this spring was 6.9.
So, as I was saying… Can we take a minute? Can we step back a little and put the raging hormones of a fandom deferred away for just a sec? Let us retire, at least briefly, the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. It’s two and a half weeks. Six games at home, another nine on the road, and then he’s through the arb clock window and available for an April 16 debut at the stadium whose nickname I get yelled at for using. Tickets available now. If the Braves lose a playoff berth in the first two weeks of the season, Ronald Acuna wouldn’t have made them contenders anyway.
And if he’s not called up for that series? If he’s not killing everything at AAA and Preston Tucker is doing yeoman’s work in LF? Then maybe there was something a 19 year old with limited playing time could learn standing in against quad-A and MLB shuttle types? Maybe a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months of the dreaded “seasoning” wasn’t such a bad idea at all.