Why the Braves might call up Ronald Acuna ... or not

Today we come to you with the biggest question on the minds of many Braves fans during these dog days of a season that spiraled in recent weeks: Will the Braves bring up phenom Ronald Acuna before the end of the season?

Should the Braves call up 19-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna before the end of the season? (Photo by Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

He ain't the savior, but Acuna has ascended quickly to being not just the No. 1 prospect in the Braves organization, but a 19-year-old uber prospect whose major league debut will be the most anticipated for the Braves since Jason Heyward began the 2010 season in right field and homered on opening day.

And for a team that’s trying to capitalize on bigger crowds in the first season at SunTrust Park, and to make sure plenty of those people are excited enough to buy 2018 season tickets, having arguably the most exciting prospect in baseball play the final month of the season in an Atlanta uniform can't hurt in that cause.

Not to mention the obvious benefit of Acuna getting his feet wet in the big leagues, getting “acclimated” as the Braves are doing now with lefty prospect Max Fried, before competing for a spot on the opening-day roster in 2018, as most believe Acuna will do at spring training.

Acuna, who doesn’t turn 20 until December, was named the International League’s Batter of the Week on Monday after hitting .481 (13-for-27) with two doubles, three home runs and eight RBIs in six games last week, all on the road. He has set an astonishing pace since he was promoted last month from Double-A, where he also was the league’s youngest player.

In 37 Triple-A games through Sunday, he hit .355 with 22 extra-base hits (eight homers), a .417 on-base percentage and .618 slugging percentage (1.035 OPS). To repeat, he’s the youngest player in the league, a few years or more younger than most of those he’s playing with and against.

He’s a strong candidate for minor league player-of-the-year awards presented by Baseball America and others. He has hit .327 with a .379 OBP and .920 OPS in 122 games across three levels this season, with 57 extra-base hits (eight triples, 20 home runs), 72 RBIs, 78 runs and 37 stolen bases.

And the remarkable thing is, he’s posted improved statistics at every level after being promoted. The kid is hitting better in Triple-A than he did at high-A Florida to begin the season. We just don’t see that happen. But Acuna is doing a lot of things we just don’t see happen.

Ronald Acuna, Braves super prospect. (Getty Images)

So, you ask, why wouldn’t the Braves bring him up during September, when rosters can be expanded and it wouldn’t require dumping someone on the current 25-man roster to create room? If not on Sept. 1, why wouldn’t they at least call him up after the Triple-A playoffs?

And here are the potential reasons, the business side of things that can and usually do play into these decisions with most teams, though notably not in similar recent cases with the Braves, including Heyward and Freddie Freeman:

-- Acuna is not on the 40-man roster. And he hasn’t been in the system long enough since signing at 16 to require the Braves protect him in the Rule 5 Draft in December, when other teams can poach unprotected players from rosters. The Braves have a few other prospects who they want to protect from that draft, and could decide they can’t afford to put Acuna on the 40-man roster this season, as it would mean one less space they could use to protect a player who needs protecting. They could wait until they need to add Acuna to the roster, say in spring training if they decide to have him on the opening-day roster.

The counter to that argument: the Braves can clear plenty of roster spots after the season by cutting ties with some current unproductive players, in addition to some who are in the last years of contracts. If they want to add Acuna now or in September, the 40-man roster situation shouldn’t be a strong enough deterrent given the level of excitement he’s created among the fan base and for the reasons stated above having to do with getting some experience now, etc.

-- The Braves can have an entire extra season before Acuna is eligible for free agency if they keep him off the roster until late April, long enough for him to avoid getting the full 172 days of service time that a player can accrue in what is typically a 183-day season. That 172 days is important – that represents a full season of service time. So if a team times it so that a player is called up after the point in which he could get the full 172 days needed in his first season, then at the end of his sixth season in the major leagues he will have five years and 171 or fewer days of service and be short of the six full seasons of service required for free agency.

In other words, by not bringing up a player in September and not in early-mid April, a team can have contractual control over a player for, in effect, a seventh season before he’s eligible for free agency. If they bring up Acuna now, or in September then unless they were to keep him off the roster for a corresponding amount of time at the beginning of the 2018 season, Acuna would be eligible for free agency after his sixth full season (2023) in the majors. If they don’t call him up this season, the Braves could wait until late April to bring him up and Acuna would not be eligible for free agency until after the 2024 season.

The counter argument: While a team could get nearly a full extra season out of a player by resisting the temptation to call him up now or in early April, it looks bad to a lot of fans – remember, new stadium, desire to make people excited, etc. – and you’re also gambling that a player remains healthy, that he becomes the player you think he will, and that you are going to keep him for the full amount of time before he’s a free agent rather than sign him to a long-term extension before then or trade him. Of course, if you wait to bring him up in late April and decide to trade him in four or five years, that extra year he’ll have before free-agent eligibility could mean a huge difference in the return that another team is willing to give for him in a trade.

But if you plan to keep a player long-term, if you really believe he’s a foundational player you want for 10 or more years and not six or seven, then roll the dice now, go for the big positive effect that his call-up could have on both the player and the team’s fan base, and don’t worry about six or seven years down the road.

-- And finally, the “Super Two” arbitration matter. Players are eligible for arbitration – and the huge salary increase that comes with it – after three years of service, and for three years before free agency. But in addition to that group, the top 22 percent of players with the most service time under three years are also eligible for arbitration as “Super Two” players.

To prevent a player from becoming a Super Two after his third season in the majors, and having four years of arbitration and big salaries before free agency, teams will often wait about two months into his rookie season to bring a player up for the first time. That means holding them back until late May or even June 1, to be safe. By doing so, a team gets about 3 2/3  low-cost seasons out of a player before he becomes arbitration-eligible, instead of the three seasons or less than they would get if he’s on the opening-day roster or is called up for the first time at some point in April or early May.

A counter to that argument:  If a player was brought up now or in September, a team would also get more than three full seasons before arbitration – the rest of this season plus the next three full seasons. In other words, if a team thinks strongly that a prospect is going to be on the opening-day roster or be up in early April, there’s no contractual reason in terms of arbitration not to call him up now. But there is still the free-agency issue (see above).

And so, there are the reasons why the Braves could, should or shouldn’t bring up Ronald Acuna now. In terms of whether he’s ready, well, seldom do we see a player who looks much more ready than this kid, even though he’s only 19.

Remember, the guy he’s often compared with, Andruw Jones, hit two homers in a World Series game at age 19.

If it were me? I'd call him up in September. If he's as good as we all think, you're going to want to sign this guy to a big, long-term contract before he hits arbitration anyway. He's that special.

Today would've been the late, great Joe Strummer's 65th birthday. Here he is post-Clash.

"COMA GIRL" by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros

Joe Strummer

I was crawling through a festival way out west 

I was thinking about love and the acid test 

But first I got real dizzy with a real rocking gang 

Then I saw the Coma Girl and the excitement gang

And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder 

Through all the stages I wandered

Coma Girl and the excitement gang 

Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang 

Coma Girl

Coma Girl 

Coma Girl was beating with the Oil Drum gang 

Some fast food fanatic was burning down the burger van 

Somebody was wailing off their head 

Nobody was ripping the teen scene dead

And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder 

I thought you and me might wander 

As the 19th hour was falling upon Desolation Row 

Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go 

Let's siphon up some gas let's get this show on the road 

Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang

Into action everybody sprang 

The oil drums were beating out dulang dulang

Coma Girl and the excitement gang 

Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang 

Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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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.