Ronald Acuna welcomes high expectations in Year 2

Ronald Acuna knows he’ll have a target on his back. He knows he’ll have an enormous amount of responsibility in propelling the Braves’ offense. Expectations for his first full season have even included, dare we say, whispers of MVP candidacy.

The 21-year-old welcomes the challenge. He’s no longer the rookie bursting on the scene. Pitchers will attack him knowing he’s among the National League’s best hitters.

“I try not to worry about that,” he said through an interpreter. “The game stays the same. They have to pitch, I have to hit. I’m not spending too much time worrying about that.”

Telling the 2018 Braves’ story always will begin with Acuna, a focal point of spring training who later galvanized the second-half offense and pushed the Braves out of their rivals’ reach. His rookie-of-the-year honor was cemented by manager Brian Snitker’s decision after the All-Star break.

The Braves stumbled into the second half. The long-anticipated regression was upon them. Acuna was rather subpar coming off a scary injury, and nothing about his performance to that date indicated he’d excel at leadoff. Snitker plugged him there anyway.

Acuna awoke: He hit .322/.403/.625 with 15 doubles, four triples and 19 homers along with 14 steals. The Braves likely wouldn’t have won the NL East without his leadoff surge.

Naturally, Snitker gave light consideration to moving Acuna down in the order for more run-creating opportunities, but he’d become such a spark there was no reason to interfere with what worked.

The Braves still lack a logical clean-up hitter. Newcomer Josh Donaldson is pegged second in the order, with Freddie Freeman in his usual third.

Acuna would be fine with moving down if the situation dictates it, but he acknowledged he’s developed a liking for the No. 1 spot.

“Those are things out of my control,” he said. “I’m just happy to be in the lineup. Obviously I do enjoy batting leadoff but that’s not my decision.”

Acuna’s charisma and enthusiasm on the field is celebrated, but his interviews are often more collected. He didn’t declare any heightened goals for 2019, insisting he just wants to improve as a player and person. He played coy when asked differences between this spring and last, when he was trying to make the major-league roster.

He usually defers to team success. His mentality, as he words it, is to have fun, take care of business and be yourself. He stays level-headed at a time he could easily be more brash.

“When you start from the bottom, and you make it to this point, there’s no real reason to change,” he said. “Nothing about that process would make me feel like I have to change anything about myself. I think with all the team success, you just remind yourself to remain humble through the entire experience.”

And on that note, he’s ready to help the Braves advance past the NL Division Series. They were eliminated by the Dodgers in four games a season ago, but Acuna had his first electric postseason moment with a grand slam in SunTrust Park’s first playoff atmosphere.

“It was incredible, especially to think of it as my first year in the big leagues. To be able to make the playoffs and reach the levels of success we did was incredible. Right now I’m desperate. I want to get to the playoffs again and hopefully take the next step, get to the World Series and win the World Series.”