Braves: Ronald Acuna continues embracing big stage

Ronald Acuna isn’t just baseball’s best prospect. He’s a talent who’s shown he can show up when it matters most.

The Braves’ 19-year-old outfielder again made his case as the game’s most promising prospect on Saturday. Acuna went 2-for-4 with four RBIs, propelling Peoria to an 8-2 win over Mesa in the Arizona Fall League championship game.

Much like he did in his three minor-league level stops last season, Acuna wowed spectators in Arizona. He became the youngest winner of the AFL MVP award after hitting .329 with seven homers and 22 runs scored in 23 games prior to Saturday.

In what's becoming a trend, Acuna embraced the spotlight. He hit a ball 112 mph in the Future's Game on July 9, then a season-high. He followed that up with a 119 mph homer in his home Triple-A debut, the hardest-hit long ball by a Brave in 2017.

“The Venezuela native has emerged as the most promising prospect in the Braves organization since Jason Heyward or Andruw Jones before him,” said Bill Ballew of Baseball America, which named Acuna its minor league player of the year. “He needs to polish some aspects of his game, such as improving his basestealing efficiency and reducing his strikeout rate, but given the rapid adjustments he has made, Acuna has the skill set to be a superstar.”

A superstar would be welcomed by a franchise mired in controversy and losses. MLB is expected to announce its findings of an investigation into the Braves’ alleged illegal activity in the international market and draft as early as Monday.

No matter the result, the Braves will cling to Acuna, who was signed for $100,000 prior to the John Coppolella regime that smeared the team with a seemingly endless list of alleged infractions.

“You see him at the plate, things he hits, the way he goes about it,” said catching prospect Alex Jackson, who had a strong AFL in his own right. “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.”

Acuna wasn’t regarded as an elite talent entering the season. His ascension was swift and exceptionally rare. He slashed .325/.374/.522 across Class-A Florida, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. He led the minors with 181 hits, paired with his 21 homers, 31 doubles, eight triples and 82 RBIs.

"I think I'm most proud of being able to jump from league to league to league, from level to level," Acuna said at SunTrust Park while accepting his organizational player of the year award. "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."

Acuna stole 44 bases in 64 tries. He admits he gets anxious at first base, and while his timing obviously requires improvement, 44 steals is a testament to his five-tool ability.

Jones is the go-to comparison for Acuna, fair or not, due to the advanced performance at such a ripe age. As impressive as Acuna was, he wasn’t quite at Jones’ level. In 1996, Jones hit .339 with 34 homers and 30 steals.

Former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones saw Jones up close throughout his prime seasons. Chipper likens Acuna to his former teammate.

"He reminds me of Andruw at 19," Chipper said last summer. "They don't do everything alike. I think athleticism-wise at 19 or 20, I give a slight edge to Andruw. I give a slight edge to Acuna in arm strength over Andruw. I think that Andruw was more power-oriented, certainly had the capability of hitting .300 because he did it.

“But the older Andruw got, he became strictly power-oriented. With Acuna, his bat stays in the zone a long time. I think he’s going to end up being kind of the happy medium guy, a guy that’s going to hit .300, but is going to hit you 25-30 a year.”

In less than 12 months, Acuna went from an average prospect to the headliner of a four-year rebuild. He’s expected to start in Atlanta on opening day, though the team may need to clear space in a veteran-laden outfield that includes Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp.

Acuna said his goal is to fill one of those outfield spots in game 1, and he’d use the offseason to prepare for it. If his AFL was an indication, he’s off to a good start.