All the attention being showered upon Braves top prospect Ronald Acuna in the last week alone is heady stuff for any 19-year-old.
Playing in his first Futures All-Star game, the Venezuelan outfielder had the exit velocity recorded from every fierce swing he took, had a round of batting practice posted on YouTube, and had a photo go viral on Twitter of him next to Chicago White Sox prospect Yoan Moncada, so that the names on their jerseys — Acuna Moncada — made a play on the “Lion King” song.
“Hakuna matata” is a Swahili phrase that basically means “no worries.” And for Acuna, it’s fitting. The kid has hit at every level he’s played at this year — including .287 in high Single-A Florida and .326 in Double-A Mississippi — and that only continued over the weekend after the Braves fanned the flames by promoting him to Triple-A Gwinnett upon his return from Futures game in Miami. Acuna hit a home run in his second Gwinnett at-bat while posting a three-hit game Thursday night in Charlotte.
He had multi-hit games in two of his first four Triple-A games before the G-Braves entered a homestand Monday night, including a double to each field on Saturday night. Acuna was hitting 5-for-17 (.294) overall, having scored five runs, walked four times (boosting his on-base percentage to .429) and driven in three runs. With that kind of first impression, add Acuna’s new Gwinnett teammates and coaches to the list of those making little attempt to tone down the buzz.
“The hype is definitely real,” said Kris Medlen, the 31-year-old right-hander who has seen Acuna play in both Double-A Mississippi and now Triple-A Gwinnett while working to resurrect his Braves career. “I’ve seen some base-running mistakes, but skill-wise, it’s insane. It’s about as good as you can get at that age.”
The only debate seems to be over what major league player to compare Acuna to; the popular choice within the Braves organization has been to Braves Hall of Famer Andruw Jones. Like Jones, Acuna plays the outfield, has a unique combination of power and speed and doesn’t seem intimidated by the pitching he sees at any level. And he’s making a similar kind of meteoric rise through the minor leagues at the age of 19. Jones was in the big leagues by August 1996 at age 19 and starred in the World Series that October.
Medlen goes outside the organization to draw his own comparison.
“I keep going with a young Hanley,” said Medlen, as in Red Sox Hanley Ramirez, a three-time All-Star. “Skill-wise. Pop to all fields. His batting stance a little bit. Some people might think I’m crazy, but that’s just what I see.”
Gwinnett hitting coach John Moses goes a little older school.
“He reminds me a lot of Junior, from the right side,” said Moses, acknowledging 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ken Griffey Jr. “When Junior first came up, he was thin and could see the ball well out of the pitcher’s hand. He knew the exact location the ball was going.”
Moses was Seattle’s starting center fielder in 1987 when the Mariners invited the newly signed Griffey, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, to take batting practice at the Seattle Kingdome.
“The first day he took BP with a wooden bat, he was launching them into the third deck in the Kingdome,” Moses said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m out of here. He’s going to be taking my place here.’”
Moses said he thinks Acuna has a similar smoothness to his swing, a good approach and uncanny vision.
“He sees the ball well,” Moses said. “It’s almost amazing, to where he can see it actually going right as the pitcher is releasing the ball, which is impressive. I can tell by the way his body movement is going, he’s s geared to hit. And all of a sudden as soon as he sees it released, he’s able to lay off pitches.”
For his part, Acuna said he grew up idolizing his fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera, the 2012 Triple-Crown winner and two-time American League MVP for the Detroit Tigers.
Acuna isn’t nearly as physically imposing as Cabrera, at least not yet. But he has shown patience at the plate and the ability to hit for power to all fields as Cabrera does. Acuna’s first home run with Gwinnett went to the “home run porch” in right field at Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark for the right-handed hitter.
“You assume that he’s this big free swinger, that he’s just going to be hacking at everything,” Medlen said. “He lays off just as many really good pitches as he does swing at really good pitches. At the plate, he has a lot more of an idea than you think he does.”
Moses didn’t mind mentioning Acuna in the same breath as Cabrera either.
“He has every bit a chance to be that good,” Moses said. “For me, the sky is the limit for him. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him here, but you can just see it. He’s only going to get better as time goes on.”
Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill took note when Acuna struck out in his first Triple-A at-bat Thursday on a pair of sliders. In his next at-bat, he hit a slider for his home run.
“The biggest thing for him is just to keep doing what he’s doing and improving every day and not take anything for granted,” Berryhill said. “He’s still got to work hard and get stuff done, but for a 19-year-old kid he’s pretty advanced.”
Acuna has latched on to fellow top Braves’ prospect Ozzie Albies, spending time with him Saturday afternoon in the indoor batting cages when batting practice was rained out. He is also hitting behind him in the No. 2 spot in Gwinnett’s lineup.
“He never thought they were going to call him up in Triple-A,” said Albies, a Curacao native, translating for Acuna.
Acuna had been asked how he’s taking in all that’s happened to him over the past week or so.
“He just wants to maintain whatever he’s doing right now,” Albies said. “Keep healthy and strong.”
While at the Futures Game, Acuna told Baseball America in a video chat that his goal was to be better than his father. Well, he’s very nearly there already. His father, Ron Acuna, spent five years in the Mets organization from 1999-2004 but never made the major leagues.
Logically, Acuna’s best shot to make Atlanta’s roster may coming out of spring training next year, when some spots open up in the outfield — Acuna can play all three outfield positions. But that doesn’t mean Braves manager Brian Snitker won’t pull the trigger earlier, perhaps with a September call-up.
“He’s going to be a good one,” Snitker said in a text message. “Loved watching him play in the spring.”
And then this:
“Once they get to Triple-A, they’re in play.”