Anticipation keeps growing: Acuna is Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect

If it’s even possible at this point to further raise Braves Country’s already towering anticipation concerning Ronald Acuna, Baseball America did it Monday when the publication named the dynamic outfielder as the No. 1 prospect in the sport.

He was ranked just ahead of celebrated Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani, the so-called “Babe Ruth of Japan” for his hitting and pitching prowess.

The Braves placed eight prospects in BA’s Top 100 – all within the first 72 – while no other organization had more than six. The other Braves ranked: left-hander Luiz Gohara (No. 23); right-handers Mike Soroka (27), Kyle Wright (34) and Ian Anderson (42); third baseman Austin Riley (54), and lefties Kolby Allard (65) and Max Fried (72).

Four teams had six prospects in the top 100 (Yankees, Brewers, Padres, Rays) and four teams had five including a Braves division rival, the similarly rebuilding Phillies.

Gohara and Fried made their major league debuts in 2017 and will compete for spots in the Braves rotation at spring training. Meanwhile, most observers expect Acuna, who turned 20 a week before Christmas, to make his debut early in the 2018 season and become a force in the middle of Atlanta’s lineup for a long time.

Numerous teams have asked the Braves about Acuna in trade discussions and been told he’s not available.

“Hey, this kid is going to be a star,” said Luis Salazar, a former major leaguer who was Acuna’s manager at Double-A Mississippi – the second of his three stops in a spectacular 2017 season – and managed him again in the Arizona Fall League, where Acuna was the youngest MVP in the history of the prospect-laden league.

“This guy is a five-tool player, and I mean natural. You go look at some other (prospects), they’ve got two or three (tools), but five? He’s got five solid tools,” Salazar said. “This kid has a lot of potential to be one of the best. When you start in A-ball, then dominate Double-A and dominate Triple-A (in the same season), at that age? You don’t see that. Only Andruw Jones does that.”

Before Andruw Jones won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves in center field for the Braves, he was Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in 1996 and again in 1997. Jones was 19 when he hit two homers in his first World Series game in 1996 at Yankee Stadium.

The other of the Braves’ famous Joneses, Chipper, was Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect a quarter-century ago in 1993. Chipper Jones played his entire 19-season career with the Braves, won a National League MVP award in 1999, and is expected to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with one of the highest voting percentages in history when the Class of 2018 is announced Wednesday.

A week ago, when Chipper Jones was asked about the current state of the Braves, he focused his answer on their dynamic outfield prospect.

“I’m extremely excited about Acuna, I think this kid’s going to be the next Trout, the next Harper here in the next three or four years,” Jones said. “I put up some pretty lofty expectations on him; I think this kid’s going to be a top-five player in the game within two or three years. He’s got that kind of ability, he’s got that I-make-the-game-look-easy kind of Andruw Jones feel in the outfield, and he can flat-out rake.

“He’ll hit the ball out of the ballpark to all fields. I expect him to hit .300, I expect him to steal some bases, and I expect him to play Gold Glove defense.”

No. 3 on Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2018 was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the son of the former Montreal Expos slugger who was a contemporary of Jones. The elder Guerrero is a lock to join Jones in the Hall of Fame Class of 2018.

A year ago, Guerrero was No. 20 among BA’s Top 100 prospects and Acuna was 67th, just the sixth-highest Brave behind current Atlanta infielders Dansby Swanson (No. 3 in 2017) and Ozzie Albies (11), and Allard (37), Soroka (48) and Anderson (66).

Acuna soared up the list after starting the 2017 season at high Single-A Florida. He not only thrived at each of three levels, he actually hit better with each step up -- despite being the youngest player in Double-A when he played for Salazar and the youngest player at Triple-A when he finished the season at Gwinnett.

Competing in Triple-A against players mostly three to five years older, Acuna hit a smoking-hot .344 with 25 extra-base hits (nine homers) and a .940 OPS in 54 games for Gwinnett. Then he went to Arizona and hit .325 with a league-leading seven home runs in 23 games while posting a .414 OBP and 1.053 OPS (second in the AFL).

Since the Joneses came up through the organization, the Braves had one other prospect ranked No. 1 by Baseball America: Jason Heyward in 2010. That year, Heyward made the NL All-Star team and hit .277 with a .393 OBP and .849 OPS – still his career highs the latter two categories – and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting behind Buster Posey.

Chipper Jones finished a close second for 1995 NL Rookie of the Year behind Hideo Nomo, who debuted that season as a 26-year-old rookie after thriving in Japan early in his career.