Two years ago, the Braves franchise was completely altered with the promotion of Ronald Acuna, baseball’s best prospect and a youngster whose anticipation exceeded that of any Braves prospect since 2010. It signaled a new age in the franchise’s storied history.
It was also four days I’ll never forget. I was the backup beat writer at the time and Cincinnati was scheduled as my first road series. That is, the first time I’d covered the Braves on the road. It’s difficult to explain, but that’s a sizable career accomplishment.
That week was not expected to be Acuna’s debut. The Braves held him in Triple-A to retain an additional year of control – or because they wanted him to develop more, whatever it is they were saying at the time. They would gain that extra year if Acuna was in the minors beyond April 13. Baseball politics were at play and that’s OK. Every team would’ve done the same thing if they weren’t a contender, which the Braves didn’t expect to be.
Acuna was held down despite an excellent spring training (he hit .432 with a 1.247 OPS). He built off his 2017 season, in which he won Baseball America’s minor league player of the year award after hitting .325 with 31 doubles, 21 homers, 82 RBIs and 88 runs scored across the levels (139 games). He also stole 44 bases.
The Braves were 12-8 before the Cincinnati series. The first two games were losses: They were crushed 10-4 the first meeting, giving up five runs in the sixth. The next night, they scored four in the ninth but lost 9-7 after Scooter Gennett hit a walk-off homer off Max Fried in extra innings.
While the record was still respectable – two games over .500 – it felt like the team needed a spark. Whispers from Venezuelan media began circulating after the second game that Acuna was being promoted.
We were in the press box late that Tuesday evening. The game went 12 innings and the Acuna rumors didn’t spark until an hour or so after its conclusion. We scrambled to get confirmation while simultaneously writing stories about his arrival.
The timing made sense. It was 12 days beyond the April 13 mark and Acuna had started to heat up after a slow start. The 20-year-old was 11-for-33 (.333) in his last eight games.
“It helped me to develop a little bit more throughout those couple weeks in the minor leagues,” Acuna said on his debut day, via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “It definitely helped me be more prepared than I thought I would be leaving spring training.”
On Wednesday, April 25, 2018, Acuna officially became an Atlanta Brave. The kid of five-tool talent and charisma, baseball’s latest super prospect, debuted. He additionally became the youngest player in the majors, besting his teammate and friend Ozzie Albies, who’d been promoted the prior August.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time,” Acuna said that day. “So when I finally got the call, I was sort of in shock. I didn’t know what to think.”
Acuna was informed the night before around 11 p.m. He arrived at Great American Ballpark at 1:45 p.m. the next day. He manned left field and hit sixth in the lineup that night, when the Braves went on to defeat the Reds 5-4.
The prodigy had a tame game: 1-for-5 with the game-tying run scored. The Braves won it in the ninth – what would become a trend in the Acuna era.
Acuna drew gasps during his batting practice the next day, making those powerful blasts – to which we’re now accustomed – look easy. It was apparently his way of foreshadowing: Acuna plastered a 3-1 pitch from Homer Bailey in his first at-bat of his second game. The home run was 106 mph off the bat and traveled 416 feet into the second deck in left field.
He’d collect two more hits, including a go-ahead RBI double, and score a pair of runs. He and Albies combined for five RBIs and the Braves won 7-4. They salvaged a split in the series, receiving the exact spark they wanted from Acuna.
You know the rest of the story: Acuna, a superstar leadoff man, won rookie of the year. The Braves won 90 games, unexpectedly returning the relevancy and claiming the National League East. The year after, they’d win the East again – this time with 97 victories – and Acuna would be among the top contenders for NL MVP as he neared a 40-40 season.
It’s surreal to realize the Cincinnati series was only two years ago. So much has changed over that time, and Acuna is no longer a hot-shot prospect. He’s met or exceeded every lofty expectation. The Braves signed him to an extension that could go 10 years, meaning nearly his entire prime will be in Atlanta. It’s not hyperbole to think he could one day take up the mantle as the best player in baseball.
The Braves, meanwhile, are among the NL’s elite. They’re still trying to get over the postseason hump, but that’s a more welcomed challenge than waiting on 18-year-olds to fulfill their hype. We don’t revisit that Reds series often because it wasn’t high stakes. But looking back, it ushered in the new-look Braves. It previewed what was to come with Acuna, Albies and the team’s heart.
Acuna and I don’t have much in common, but it’s safe to say we’ll both always remember that week in Cincinnati.
So I’ll close with just a few older quotes on Acuna, whose journey is amazingly still in its earliest stages:
Chipper Jones, prior to Acuna’s debut: “He reminds me of Andruw (Jones) at 19. 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 a year.”
Freddie Freeman, ChopFest 2018: “We don’t have that big right-handed bat until you-know-who comes along, and hopefully he can make an impact right away. We’re going to have our ups and downs with him. It’ll be his first year learning the system, learning the game, people making adjustments to him. But he could be that guy. And hopefully he’s the next Aaron Judge where he can come in and make an impact right away.”
Brian Snitker: “I put him in the lineup and turn him loose. I have a great seat to watch this young man play. The best thing I can do is stay out of his way. … I love the fact the kid likes to play baseball. The impression I get from that young man is he likes playing baseball, and who wouldn’t if you have that skill set? I’d love to be in that body and have that skill set. Then I’d really love to play baseball.”
Nick Markakis: “His plate discipline for his age is pretty rare. You can’t teach plate discipline. It’s a natural ability to do it. Not just his natural ability at the plate, but every aspect of his game is pretty impressive. He’s one of the better young guys I’ve been able to play with and watch come up. What he does and what he brings to a team, especially our team, is priceless.
“Braves fans and his teammates in the future should be excited to play with him, to watch him, because he’s going to be one of a kind.”
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