Braves' Acuna is the future, and future could arrive soon

ST. LOUIS -- If Braves uber prospect Ronald Acuna is called up to the majors at some point in the next seven weeks, his debut could become the most memorable event of the season for the team. The 19-year-old outfielder is that good and that entertaining to watch.

For the Braves, this is what the future looks like: Uber outfield prospect Ronald Acuna, 19, who could make his major league debut before the end of the season. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

A combination of speed, power and an overall abundance of baseball skills, Acuna created a buzz at the All-Star Futures Game last month in Miami, like he has at every ballpark he’s played in across three leagues this season from high Single-A to Triple-A.

Acuna was rated in Baseball America’s midseason managers survey as the most exciting prospect in both the high-A Florida State League and Double-A Southern League, and might have earned that same distinction in the Triple-A International League if he’d been called up to Gwinnett a little sooner.

He's been in Triple-A four weeks, the youngest player in any league at that level, and Acuna has impressed everyone, including veteran major leaguers who aren’t prone to lavishing praise on prospects, but don’t mind making an exception when it comes to talking about him.

“Dude, there are guys everywhere with skills,” said veteran pitcher Kris Medlen, who is trying to make it back to the majors with the Braves and has played with Acuna this season in Double-A and currently at Gwinnett. “Someone with a ton of pop, but they’re striking out a ton. Someone who can hit, but doesn’t have a position because they can’t play (defense). But this dude has everything! He’s incredible to watch in person day in and day out.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Acuna's eye-opening stats is how they have improved with each bump up to a higher level this season: In 28 games at Gwinnett before Friday, he hit a sizzling .342 (38-for-111) with 14 extra-base hits (four homers), 13 walks, 25 strikeouts and a .416 OBP and .559 slugging percentage (.975 OPS).

He hit a homer for Gwinnett that was measured at 114 mph off the bat, higher than the exit velocity of any homer hit by a Braves major leaguer this season.

To repeat: He’s the youngest player in Triple-A. Easily. And he'll be among the youngest in the Arizona Fall League this year if he's among the Braves to be assigned to that prospect-laden league, as is expected,

Acuna has hit .320 overall this season with a .375 OBP and .519 slugging percentage for an .894 OPS in 113 games at three levels, with 25 doubles, eight triples, 16 homers, 62 RBIs and 36 stolen bases. Kid can stuff a stat sheet. And defensively? Well, there are some who think the cannon-armed Venezuelan might be as good in the field as he is at the plate.

Speaking of offense, Medlen said don’t assume as some do that Acuna’s been up there just hacking away, because of his 121 strikeouts in 447 at-bats with only 39 walks (a ratio that’s improved markedly in Triple-A).

“Just when you think he’s this big free swinger with no approach because he swung at the first pitch in his first at-bat and got out, he makes adjustments throughout the game and sits on (takes) really good pitches with two strikes,” Medlen said. “Real advanced for his age.”

Dansby Swanson just spent two weeks playing with Acuna after Swanson was demoted to Gwinnett in late July. Swanson returned to the majors Wednesday, and I asked him what he thought of Acuna.

 “He’s good, man,” Swanson said. “I think talent-wise he’s pretty unbelievable. Still a young kid so he’s still got a lot of – it’s not bad thing, it just is what it is – he’s still got a lot of things to learn mentally and emotionally and all those kinds of things. But definitely a special, true talent, and it’s exciting to be able to watch him. Kind of unfair to be able to watch him too, at the same time. But yeah, he’s good. No surprise there, he’s good.”

In early July, Baseball America named Acuna the No. 1 prospect in the Braves’ rich minor league system and No. 10 overall in its midseason Top 100, up from No. 62 in BA’s preseason list. And a couple of weeks ago, Baseball America named him the top power-speed prospect still in the minors, after Yoan Moncada graduated to the major leagues.

“The speed with which Acuna has adapted to higher levels of play is startling,” Baseball America said in ranking him No. 1 among minor league power-speed prospects. “He spent just 40 games at low Class A last season in an injury-truncated year, but that didn't stop him from rocketing to Triple-A this year in mid-July. Acuna fits the five-tool paradigm and has star potential.”

Acuna hit a home run last month for Gwinnett that had an exit velocity of 114 mph, higher than that of any homer hit by a Braves major leaguer this season. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

Will he complete the rise from high-A to majors within the same season? It won’t be surprising if the Braves call him up, even though they don’t have to protect Acuna in this December's Rule 5 Draft and do have to protect a few others, making 40-man roster spots valuable.

Acuna is so good, the Braves might just add him to the 40-man roster anyway this season and call him up, let him get a taste of the majors as a teen – he turns 20 in December -- and let their fans see the dynamic kid who could be manning an outfield spot as soon as next spring.

I asked Braves icon Chipper Jones about Acuna in mid-July, right after he’d been called up to Triple-A. Chipper pulled out the big gun when it came to comparisons – Andruw Jones, Chipper’s longtime former teammate and the man who hits two homers in a World Series game as a 19-year-old rookie.

“He reminds me of Andruw at 19,” Chipper said. “They don’t do everything alike. I think athleticism-wise at 19 or 20 I give a slight edge to Andruw. I give a slight edge to Acuna in arm strength over Andruw. I think that Andruw was more power-oriented, certainly had the capability of hitting .300 because he did it. But the older Andruw got, he became strictly power-oriented.

“With Acuna, his bat stays in the zone a long time. I think he’s going to end up being kind of the happy-medium guy, a guy that’s going to hit .300 but is going to hit you 25-30 (home runs) a year. Whereas Andruw, the older he got he dipped down and in the .230s, 240s, .250s, but he hit a ton of homers. I think Acuna is going to be the all-around guy who hits for average and power because his bat stays in zone so long.

“Obviously with Inciarte in the picture for a long time, Acuna is going to play a corner spot, but he’s certainly capable of playing center field at a high level.”

Again, this was before Acuna had begun to dominate Triple-A even more than he had Double-A, and here’s what Jones had to say about him a few days after his promotion to Gwinnett:

“It’s really amazing what he’s done – he’s jumped two levels this year and could conceivably get a cup of coffee in September. And I certainly see him pushing for a (opening-day roster) spot in spring training.”

Even before the minor league season began, Acuna already had impressed many by his performance in Grapefruit League games when he was brought over from minor league camp to play in 13 major league spring training games, a rarity for a player so young and with only low-minors experience at the time.

“You could see it in spring training, the level of competition doesn’t faze him,” Chipper said. “He’s very confident in his ability to pay the game of baseball, doesn’t matter who’s out there. They throw it over the plate, he whacks it. They hit it, he goes and catches it. The game comes pretty easy to him.”

• If I were a teen again, I'd probably have this Tom Waits attitude toward growing up.

"I DON'T WANT TO GROW UP" by Tom Waits

Tom Waits
When I'm lyin' in my bed at night

I don't wanna grow up

Nothin' ever seems to turn out right

I don't wanna grow up

How do you move in a world of fog

That's always changing things

Makes me wish that I could be a dog

When I see the price that you pay

I don't wanna grow up

I don't ever wanna be that way

I don't wanna grow up Seems like folks turn into things

that they'd never want

The only thing to live for

Is today...

I'm gonna put a hole in my TV set

I don't wanna grow up

Open up the medicine chest

And I don't wanna grow up

I don't wanna have to shout it out

I don't want my hair to fall out

I don't wanna be filled with doubt

I don't wanna be a good boy scout

I don't wanna have to learn to count

I don't wanna have the biggest amount

I don't wanna grow up Well when I see my parents fight

I don't wanna grow up

They all go out and drinking all night

And I don't wanna grow up

I'd rather stay here in my room

Nothin' out there but sad and gloom

I don't wanna live in a big old tomb

On Grand Street When I see the 5 o'clock news

I don't wanna grow up

Comb their hair and shine their shoes

I don't wanna grow up

Stay around in my old hometown

I don't wanna put no money down

I don't wanna get me a big old loan

Work them fingers to the bone

I don't wanna float a broom

Fall in love and get married then boom

How the hell did it get here so soon

I don't wanna grow up

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.