Acuna draws comparison to Clemente, but also a cautionary tale

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna, rated the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball this winter by several experts, takes questions from the media during an interview in the dugout on Thursday, Feb 15, 2018, at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna, rated the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball this winter by several experts, takes questions from the media during an interview in the dugout on Thursday, Feb 15, 2018, at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer remembers the first time he saw Ronald Acuna play, and tells a story that illustrates the extraordinary talent that makes even longtime former big leaguers gush over the Braves’ ascendant outfield prospect.

“My first year here, we came down for end-of-the-season meetings, and watched three days of instructional ball,” Seitzer said, recalling Braves organizational meetings and the Instructional League in October 2015. “We had our meetings in the mornings and went over and watched games in the afternoon. Three days. That was (third-base prospect Austin) Riley’s first instructs, (outfield prospect Cristian) Pache was there, all the hitters.

“So (Braves officials) were telling me some key guys; they mentioned Acuna, but there wasn’t a whole lot of ‘watch this guy, too.’ He was 17 at the time, I believe. And when I went home after those three days, one of our kids was ready to have their first baby, and I said, Tyler, if you have a boy, I want you to name him Acuna.

“He goes, ‘What?’ And I said, I just saw a kid who may be the next Roberto Clemente.”

Flash ahead 28 months. Acuna is the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball, Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2017, and the youngest-ever MVP of the Arizona Fall League after hitting .325 with a 1.053 OPS and league-leading seven homers in 23 games.

He’s a non-roster invitee to Braves camp and is expected to win the starting left-field job, though the Braves might keep him in Triple-A at least a few weeks to start the season to assure contractual control for an extra year before Acuna could reach free agency. Acuna arrived in camp four days before position players were due in and said Thursday that he wanted to report early to start proving he’s ready.

Few who’ve seen him play much in the past year have any doubts that he’ll be ready this season -- not just to play in the majors, but make a big impact.

Seitzer just hopes everyone will let Acuna play without making him feel the weight of growing expectations. He points to Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson’s struggles in his first full season in the majors as a cautionary tale.

“He loves to play, and that’s the biggest thing,” Seitzer said of Acuna. “You start thinking too much, you’re in trouble. But he just loves to play. He goes and plays. He’s got all kinds of confidence in himself, he just gets after it. It’ll be fun to see how things unfold.

“The only thing I’m concerned about, because he’s so young and we saw how all the hype affected Dansby -- who was a Vandy guy, way more mature mentally, emotionally, the whole deal -- I don’t want that to happen to this kid. I just hope everybody lets him play and see what happens. Let this develop. Because all the skills are far more developed than where he has to be mentally. And he’s in a great place mentally because he goes and has fun.

“But like I said, as soon as guys start seeing light at the end of the tunnel or maybe expectations and they start reading the papers, and it’s like, ‘Oh, no, now I’ve got to go.’ I don’t know that that will happen to him, but I don’t want what happened to Dansby to happen to him.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “Dansby came into spring training and his likeness was on billboards and vehicles, things like that, and he’d had (only) two months in the big leagues. These kids already have to handle a lot nowadays. I mean, they’re asked to mature really quick. They’re coming into a league that they really don’t know nothing about, and it’s a pretty good league. So you’re putting a lot on their plate at a young age.

“And it’s a lot for a young player because the level of play and that day-in, day-out grind and the competition they’re going to face is going to be like something they’ve never experienced before.”

In some ways, it might help that Acuna spent the winter back home in Venezuela. He isn’t fluent yet in English – he uses an interpreter for interviews – and his picture isn’t on any billboards around Atlanta. Not that Acuna is unaware of the prospect rankings and all the buzz about him; it would be impossible to avoid seeing or hearing all that in the Internet age.

“He’s a mature kid. I think he gets it,” Snitker said. “There’s a lot of hype about him, a lot of talk about him; he’s a talented kid. But to keep things in perspective and just continue to take things a day at a time and go out and try and make the club is hopefully his focus. Other than last spring, I haven’t been around him a lot, but the guys that have had him are really impressed with the maturity and how he carries himself.”

A year ago at this time, Acuna had not played above low Single-A in the minors and was only two months past his 19th birthday, preparing to report to minor league camp. His notoriety began to expand when Acuna was brought over from minor league camp to play in some big-league spring training games. He didn’t just hold his own, he shone against big-league pitching and other pitchers competing for major league jobs.

He hit nearly .400 for a while and finished with a .296 average and .387 OBP in 13 major league spring-training games, far more action than any typical “fence-jumper” from minor league camp ever sees in Grapefruit League games.

“He was over a lot last year (in spring training) and started off on fire, then hit a little bump in the road, started thinking a little bit too much,” Seitzer said. “Then he locked it back in and was just really, really impressive. ... One of the most impressive things I saw last year, we were in Jupiter playing the Cardinals, and they brought a guy in throwing 98 (mph). And you don’t see much 98 early in spring training. (Acuna) took a first-pitch fastball, then swung at the next fastball way late; ball was in the catcher’s mitt when he swung. I thought, oh my gosh, he’s got no chance off this dude. Next fastball, he ’bout took the pitcher’s face off to center, and I went, wow! THAT impressed me.”

Seitzer smiled, paused. “Yeah, he’s pretty good.”

Acuna’s spring-training performance was a harbinger for a spectacular regular season. He hit .325 with 31 doubles, eight triples, 21 homers, 44 stolen bases and an .896 OPS in 139 games for three minor-league affiliates, capped by his .344 average with 25 extra-base hits (nine homers) and a .940 OPS in 54 games for Gwinnett as the youngest player in Triple-A.