Acuna doesn’t understand Braves’ decision, but hopes to start in 2018

Ronald Acuna speaks with the media Sept. 15 at SunTrust Park. Acuna won Double-A Mississippi Braves Player of the Year. (Gabriel Burns / AJC)

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Ronald Acuna speaks with the media Sept. 15 at SunTrust Park. Acuna won Double-A Mississippi Braves Player of the Year. (Gabriel Burns / AJC)

As September rolled around, each of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams promoted prospects as rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players. Yet perhaps the game’s best minor-league talent remained in waiting.

Ronald Acuna, the Braves’ 19-year-old outfielder who likely will open next season atop every prospect listing, wasn’t among the Braves’ call-ups. There are several on-and-off field reasons to delay Acuna’s debut, but he said it’s just going to motivate him more.

“I mean, to be honest, I didn’t know what the reasoning was or anything like that, but I’m just going to get more prepared in the offseason,” Acuna said through an interpreter. “Then coming into next season, the goal stays the same: to reach the big leagues.”

The Braves are celebrating their minor league players and pitchers of the year this weekend, but as usual, much of the attention centered on Acuna.

He’s fresh off winning Baseball America’s esteemed Player of the Year award. He’s being honored as the Double-A Mississippi Braves’ Player of the Year, though he would’ve won the award at any of the levels he played.

“I just thank God for this great opportunity to be here at a big-league park, SunTrust Park, with a lot of my friends and teammates,” he said. “And receiving this award, this honor, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

Acuna started with the High Single-A Florida Fire Frogs, and worked his way to Triple-A Gwinnett over the summer. Such a rise – paired with his play style and position – often prompts comparisons with Andruw Jones, a longtime Braves center fielder who’s one of Acuna’s many mentors.

Despite winning more awards this season than many athletes will over their entire careers, Acuna is most proud of how quickly he has put himself in position to make his major league debut.

“I think I’m most proud of being able to jump from league to league to league, from level to level,” he said. “So I was very happy I was able to do that, to go out and play hard every day. I’m very grateful for that.”

Through his path, Acuna’s wowed a handful of the Braves’ other premium prospects, with top starter Mike Soroka among them.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Soroka said of his time playing with Acuna in Mississippi. “It’s kind of funny, I told people coming up in rookie ball, he came to Danville and we spent a little time in GCL right after I signed. Saw some bat speed and said, ‘Guys, he swings it pretty good.’ And he was still kind of raw. But transitioning year-to-year, the crazy part is he didn’t even have that many at-bats in Rome that year. And he came out this spring just absolutely on a tear. It was pretty special to watch.

“You could have told me he was hitting .400 while he was in Mississippi, and I would’ve said I thought he was hitting .450. He hit it hard. If he struggled it was a game or two, then the next game after that was 3-for-4 again. So to see a guy like that, you can only hope he can keep doing it and I think he will be.”

Pitching prospect Touki Toussaint shared Soroka’s enthusiasm. He said Acuna brings the type of energy that bleeds into his teammates.

“Acuna’s an elite player, but we have a bunch of those elite players in our organization,” Toussaint said. “… We played together last year when we won the championship in Rome. That was fun. He’s a good kid, fun, loose, likes to have fun on the field. So that’s the kind of energy you like to be around.”

As for slugging catcher prospect Alex Jackson, he said watching Acuna from behind the plate is especially a treat. And he hopes he’ll get another chance to do so in the future.

“Acuna’s a tremendous, tremendous athlete,” Jackson said. “He has a tremendous skillset. It’s fun to watch him play, especially being behind the plate. You see the plays he makes that you’re like, ‘Eh, I don’t know that he can get there.’ And he just finds a way to get there.

“You see him at the plate, things he hits, the way he goes about it. He plays hard. Watch him run the bases. He’s got it all. It’s definitely been very enjoyable being a teammate of his. And hopefully down the road we’ll be teammates once again. But he’s a tremendous player, and there’s a bright future ahead of him.”

The praise and hype won’t calm down this offseason, when Acuna joins six other Braves at the Arizona Fall League. His motivation through the winter will be proving he deserves a starting outfield job in spring training.

“That’s my goal,” Acuna said. “To come into spring training with the objective to win a starting job and hopefully be able to play every single day in the big leagues.”

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