• Exclusives

    Acuna Is Where He Needs To Be … For Now

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Braves fans far and wide have been united for years by chanting that all-too-familiar war cry while waving their right arms up and down. But lately, those fans have rallied around another universal chant.

    It echoes daily on talk shows and podcasts. It reverberates nightly across Twitter and blogs. Three little words that comprises this fanbase’s hot-button topic of conversation as August winds toward September:

    Braves top prospect OF Ronald Acuna

    Atlanta Braves top prospect OF Ronald Acuna

    “Where’s Ronald Acuna?”

    From my neck of the North Georgia woods, wind your way to Georgia 369, head east to Gainesville and jump on Interstate 985 south. Hang a left on Georgia 20 and you will see it on the right. Coolray Field. Home of the Gwinnett Braves.

    Home – for now – of Acuna, baseball’s hottest prospect who has smashed his way through three levels of the best minor-league system in the game, putting him on the cusp of a call to the major leagues.

    And did we mention the outfielder with five tools that make scouts drool is all of 19 years old?

    By now you likely know the story of the Venezuelan native, who does not turn 20 until a week before Christmas. He impressed enough as a 17-year-old to earn a spot at Low-A Rome last season, a campaign interrupted by a thumb injury that nonetheless finished with Acuna hitting .311 for the Sally League champs.

    He played 20 games for Melbourne in the Australian Baseball League last winter to make up for time loss to the injury, hitting .375 and earning an All-Star selection. After holding his own in a handful of spring training appearances, all Acuna has done this season is hit .287 with 14 steals at High-A Florida, .326 with nine homers and 19 stolen bases in 57 games for Double-A Mississippi, then hit .328 with five homers and 10 doubles in his first 31 games at Triple-A Gwinnett.

    Which leads us to now. Rosters expand in a few days, and Braves Country is clamoring for Acuna to move into his fourth home ballpark in six months – SunTrust Park.

    With apologizes to Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.

    Acuna is right where he needs to be at this point, wrapping up a season that will find him playing close to 140 games – he appeared in 117 games the past two years combined. Yes, the thought of him in a major-league uniform is enticing, one that certainly would further stoke the fanbase’s fire heading into the winter, but there are more reasons than not to keep him on the farm.

    Atlanta faces a numbers crunch in its outfield. The Braves certainly will look to move one of its two veteran corner outfielders – left fielder Matt Kemp or right fielder Nick Markakis – during what figures to be an active offseason. The bet from this view is Markakis, a steady performer who will enter the final season of a four-year, $44-million deal in 2018, will be gone before pitchers and catchers report.

    Since his promotion to triple-A, Ronald Acuna is batting .336 with a .984 OPS

    Since his promotion to triple-A Gwinnett, Ronald Acuna is batting .336 with a .984 OPS

    The Braves do not want to sit either of their veterans in September, even though the playoffs are out of reach. Kemp has missed time with injuries but is signed through 2019 and, undeniably, makes the lineup far more potent with his right-handed bat in the cleanup spot behind Freddie Freeman. Kemp will play if healthy, and certainly the Braves will want Markakis to conclude a productive season by playing – hopefully sparking trade interest this winter.

    The Braves also face a numbers crunch on their roster. Several prospects, including Triple-A pitcher Luiz Gohara and outfielder Dustin Peterson, and High-A pitcher Ricardo Sanchez, must be added to the 40-man roster this winter to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. Acuna is not eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but if he is promoted to the majors he will have to be added to the 40-man roster, and Atlanta needs those spots to protect other assets.

    There is little value in Acuna getting sporadic playing time in the majors after Gwinnett’s season ends in early September. There is even less value in starting his service time clock at the end of a sub-.500 season. The take is unpopular, yet sensible: Let the dude go home, catch his breath after a whirlwind 12 months, refresh physically and mentally, and get ready to compete for a starting outfield spot come spring training.

    Where’s Ronald Acuna? He’s not here yet. One man’s opinion is he won’t be here before next year.

    But he will be in the majors before you know it, and it will be worth the wait.

    —30—

     

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.