Tuesday was the typical afternoon for Ronald Acuna. Before homering in his second consecutive game, he drew oohs and awes in batting practice, twice putting balls over the mountainous scoreboard in center field.
“That’s not me, that’s God,” quipped one Braves coach.
It was the middle of another gasp-inducing week for the Braves’ star. The team was off Thursday, finally cooling Acuna: He has reached base in his past nine plate appearances, with two homers, two doubles and two triples.
What the Braves have in Acuna is indescribably rare. He’s on track to be a top-five player as soon as this season. Some say it’s unfair to draw parallels with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Ken Griffey Jr. and the like, but is this not how their careers began? Constant amazement at the natural ability, supplemented by jaw-dropping production?
Baseball is at a delicate point. It’s shrouded in complaints, from pace of play to lackadaisical winters to just sheer boredom, especially with the younger audience. But talents such as Acuna should be its saving grace; those are the players MLB should advertise in its effort to capture a new generation of fans.
The 21-year-old Acuna is the most coveted asset in sports: A cost-controlled young superstar. And at least six of his seasons will be spent with the Braves. Over a half-decade of rushing to your television because Acuna is due up next.
“It’s an impressive set of skills,” bench coach Walt Weiss said. “The power and the speed combo is elite. He’s not just a power guy. He’s going to be a really good hitter over the course of his career.
“He’s fun to watch, man. When he gets rolling, it’s something to watch.”
Skeptics peg the Braves for second, third or even fourth place. That might prove accurate, but an Acuna sophomore slump wouldn’t be why. In fact, first indications – I don’t care that it’s spring training – suggest he’s ready to explode.
When glancing at the landscape of the National League, how many position players would you rather have than Acuna? There’s Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich and a few others, but Acuna has a legitimate case to be among the most valued five in the NL today.
He debuted last April! The kid’s played 111 games, and we’re ready to anoint him a member of the Avengers.
After hitting 26 homers and knocking in 64 runs his rookie season, we expect him to shatter the 30-homer, 100-RBI plateau in 2019. There’s one factor in particular that can drive those numbers upward.
It appears Acuna will be hitting cleanup, behind Ender Inciarte, Josh Donaldson and Freddie Freeman. My first inclination was keep him at leadoff, where he’s publicly stated he prefers, but it’s understandable why the Braves want potentially their best run producer hitting fourth.
Acuna has made it clear that ultimately he doesn’t care where he hits. He prioritizes winning, which is obviously what you want to see out of a kid who has the world at his fingertips.
“Mentality is the same for me,” he said of the lineup debate. “See the ball, hit the ball.”
To which I ask: If Acuna is hitting cleanup, and his numbers are where we expect them, why can’t he be the MVP? You can argue it depends on team success, but recent history suggests that isn’t an insurmountable barricade.
Oh, and the Braves could be pretty darn good. If they’re positioned for a postseason berth and Acuna is cooking, it’s going to be a legitimate discussion. Toss his name in with an Arenado, Yelich, Javy Baez, Paul Goldschmidt.
The Phillies just handed their franchise over to Harper. Would you take Acuna over Harper just for 2019? Is there even another player in the NL East you’d rather have? The fact that it’s even a discussion shows where Acuna’s put himself in less than a year’s time.
I’m not going to throw numbers or projections at you here, because Acuna will set his own benchmark in 2019. We saw what he did in the second half. We’ve talked about his career arc ad nauseum. Even the Braves cynics won’t question how Acuna produces this time around.
But 2019 MVP? What a moment in Braves history that would be. Now, is it likely? I wouldn’t say so. Is it possible? Absolutely. And that’s all the Braves and their faithful need to be excited.
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