The Braves have struggled a bit to begin the season, but for various reasons, they don’t appear too concerned.
One such reason: One of the game’s better players soon will return.
Ronald Acuña is with Triple-A Gwinnett as he works his way back from last summer’s torn ACL. He was scheduled to play seven innings in right field Wednesday, then nine Thursday. The Braves have used May 6 as a loose target date – there’s flexibility in it – for his return to their club.
“That’ll be a big boost for us,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said recently of Acuña’s return.
As one of the game’s five-tool players, Acuña will impact this team in many ways when he’s back. Here’s a look at them.
A deeper lineup
To first baseman Matt Olson, this is simple.
“The guy’s obviously a superstar,” Olson said. “You see what he’s done in the past.”
Since debuting in 2018, Acuña has hit .281 with a .925 on-base plus slugging percentage. He regularly has displayed his power, such as when he blasted 41 home runs in 2019. He’s never had an OPS lower than .883 over a season. He’s won two Silver Slugger Awards and twice has been named an All-Star.
His insertion into the Braves’ lineup should help take the pressure off everyone. To begin the season, the Braves have received plenty of contributions from the top of the lineup and not enough from the bottom. As Olson, Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies have provided the punch, Dansby Swanson, Adam Duvall and others have struggled. (Eddie Rosario, who Wednesday underwent a laser eye procedure, had a valid reason for his struggles).
“It’s going to be huge when Ronald comes back,” Riley said. “A guy like him, it doesn’t matter the lineup or anything, you’re definitely happy when he comes back.”
And from the standpoint of lineup construction, Snitker said adding Acuña to the mix allows other guys to slot in at better places. When the star outfielder returns, he will lead off and Ozzie Albies, the team’s primary leadoff hitter in Acuña’s absence, will move down.
“That’s kind of a gauntlet, when you put (Acuña) up there, and those first three of four guys, that’s pretty tough sledding for four times through the order,” Snitker said. “I think that presence and a guy like that in the lineup is huge. It’s huge when you miss somebody like that.”
Better outfield defense
When Acuña is back, Snitker said, he likely will play right field. The manager said part of this is because center field is more stressful on the legs, and the other part is because Adam Duvall has played so well in center.
Adding Acuña should be a positive for the Braves’ outfield defense, which has not been good at times this season. Rosario had been playing right field, but he’s now on the injured list. Rosario on Wednesday underwent a successful laser eye procedure. The team has only said the procedure was to correct blurred vision and swelling in the right eye.
Rosario, who couldn’t see properly out of his right eye, committed three errors. Marcell Ozuna actually has graded positively in FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved metrics for his left-field defense, but he doesn’t appear to have great range, and his arm isn’t too strong.
In right field, Acuña totaled four DRS in 2021 and four more in 2019. Three years ago, when he played his last full season, Acuña committed only three errors in the outfield.
More speed on the bases
Entering Wednesday’s game versus the Cubs, the Braves were tied for No. 29 in baseball with three stolen bases. Their lineup is full of power hitters, and they don’t have a ton of speedsters. Plus, they have shown their base-running ability in other ways.
Acuña, however, will make pitchers think when he reaches first base.
In 2019, he ranked fourth in MLB with 37 stolen bases. Last season, he stole 17 through 82 games, which almost is equal to half of a season.
He’s going to bring a different dynamic on the bases.
Asked if Acuña could join the team in New York on Monday if all goes well until then, Snitker said: “Until he gets through (Wednesday and Thursday), I can’t really say.”
But the Braves are excited – they’ve been excited. Since spring training, when Acuña entered camp in great shape, they’ve known something all along: If all went well, the superstar outfielder eventually would join the talented roster.
Over his first month as a Brave, Olson, formerly with Oakland, has hit second. He soon will have someone new hitting in front of him, and that player’s return should help the club in many ways.
“Everything I’ve seen from afar and heard about is how special he is,” Olson said. “You add a guy like that to a lineup, it’s going to change it.”
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