In some ways, it’s hard to believe the Braves are entering Year 3 of the Ronald Acuna era.
Acuna, then baseball’s No. 1 prospect, was promoted in late April 2018 and has since captivated audiences with his power, speed and oozing charisma. The Braves have made the postseason in both seasons of Acuna’s career. He’s become one of the sport’s exciting, marketable stars.
In 2019, his first full season, Acuna left little on the table: The All-Star outfielder hit .280/.365/.518, generating a legitimate pursuit of 40-40 that fell just shy at 41 homers and 37 steals.
That’s why when best friend and second baseman Ozzie Albies suggested that Acuna would pursue an unprecedented 50-50 campaign, few met his words with surprise; Acuna joyfully chases the road less – or never – traveled.
“When you look at 50-50 or something like that, it’s not really a goal you feel desperate (for) or in great need of trying to achieve,” Acuna said through team interpreter Franco Garcia. “What you want to do is help the team succeed in any way you can.”
To that end, Acuna will open the season as the team’s right fielder, a position he settled into nicely last season. The Braves saw how valuable his arm was in right – a spot that was held by Nick Markakis until a mid-season injury – and realized that was Acuna’s destiny.
“I’ve said it before: As long as I’m in the lineup, I’m happy,” he said. “But I’d say right field is a position I feel more comfortable at.”
Acuna entered the league handling left-field duties. He’s shifted to center when Ender Inciarte has been injured. He was bumped to right to substitute Markakis. His versatility is one of the many traits that has baseball buzzing.
While Acuna surely will continue changing shifts in the outfield, the Braves expect him in right over most of his career. Top prospect Cristian Pache profiles as a dynamic, Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, while other top outfield prospect Drew Waters could fit seamlessly in left. The good news for the Braves, of course, is each of the three can play any spot.
Perhaps Pache and/or Waters debut this season, but for now, Acuna is the swing piece of an outfield loaded with veterans. Inciarte is expected to maintain the bulk of work in center, with newcomer Marcell Ozuna in left.
“Ozuna is an awesome player,” Acuna said. “He’s going to help contribute on and off the field. I was happy to hear we acquired him.”
The Braves also plan to deploy Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, two corner outfielders who could be aided by Acuna’s center-field ability. Acuna and Ozuna will play every day.
To accommodate others, the Braves could bump Acuna to center, allowing Markakis or Duvall to handle a corner outfield spot. They’re tasked with managing playing time for Inciarte, Markakis and Duvall.
“It’s going to be difficult,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Ozuna and Acuna are going to play every day. That’s a given. You look at one spot with three guys, that’s going to be hard.”
But one thing the Braves know for certain: Whatever position it may be, Acuna will be a fixture in the outfield for a long, long time.