The Atlanta Braves farm system is stacked with some of baseball’s most exciting prospects.
Ronald Acuna may be the most exciting of them all.
The young Venezuelan is climbing the prospect charts. Widely considered a top ten prospect in the game, Acuna is one of the elite, all-around talented prospects the minors has to offer.
Acuna headed into the 2017 season a mere 19 years of age. Signed out of Venezuela, he made his professional debut stateside in 2015, quickly ascending from the Gulf Coast League to the Appalachian League. After slashing .290/.388/.464 with an .851 OPS at the age of 17, the Braves got aggressive and started Acuna in the South Atlantic League with Rome, one of a bevy of teenagers on the SAL 2016 Championship roster.
The right-handed hitting outfield prospect had fine numbers. He slashed .311/.387/.432 with four home runs and 14 stolen bases in 21 attempts. He hardly played, however, missing three months due to a thumb injury.
(Ronald Acuna in Rome, 2016 — Wayne Cavadi’s Minor League Videos page)
Having never accumulated more than 201 at bats, and fresh off a monster stint down under with the Melbourne Aces in the winter, the Braves tested their young prodigy once again.
And man, has he delivered.
The Florida State League was no match for Acuna. He slashed .287/.336/.478 with 11 extra base hits and 14 stolen bases in 17 attempts. He lasted just 28 games before a May 9 promotion to Mississippi, where he absolutely lit up Double-A pitching.
There, he slashed .326/.374/.520, tapping into that raw power by blasting nine home runs. The stolen base numbers are a bit misleading, as Acuna is very aggressive with his top notch speed, often trying to swipe third, sometimes in the wrong situations. Still, he was 19-for-30 in just 57 games.
He earned Southern League All Star honors and a trip to the MLB Futures Game. And then it was on to Triple-A.
Now with Gwinnett, Acuna has made a historically rapid ascent. As the youngest player in the league, he has struggled a tad, but that debut home run speaks volumes. After an 0-for-3 performance Wednesday night, Acuna is now 6-for-27 in his first seven Triple-A games, blasting two home runs.
I love Acuna’s swing. It has remained pretty consistent from the first time I saw him last fall to this time in July. There’s not much fuss pre-swing as he stands tall, hands helmet high, bat with a little curl into the air as he stands at the back of the batter’s box. The back knee is bent in a bit, and with the aid of a slight leg kick, Acuna’s big swing explodes through the strike zone.
He gets the bat into the zone, sometimes with a bit of an uppercut, but that’s something hardly worrisome. What is remarkable is his strike zone awareness, especially as the youngest player facing more and more advanced pitching. Sure, he had big time strike out totals, but they are quickly proving to be an adjustment. He chopped down his 31.7 percent strikeout rate in High-A to a 23.0 percentage in Double-A. What’s most impressive is that his walk rates have been high since he stepped onto a baseball field, and though he struggled at High-A, it has slowly climbed back at up in his last two stops, currently walking 13.3 percent of the time with Gwinnett.
Wednesday night, Acuna squared off against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs Zack Eflin. Eflin is a hard-throwing righty who threw four quality starts in his first five outings with the big league club (Philadelphia Phillies) earlier this season. Though Acuna didn’t get a hit, he was hardly phased.
Acuna was super aggressive in his first at bat, coming out swinging. He wound up popping out in foul territory between first base and right field. His seems to wisely pick and choose his aggressiveness, however, as he drew a five-pitch walk in his second at bat. Sure enough, he came out swinging at the first pitch in his third at bat, before skying out to right field. He grounded out in his final at bat.
Two things I wasn’t able to see, but all reports indicate that it shouldn’t be a problem, is Acuna’s speed. He didn’t attempt a stolen base, nor did he have much trouble in right field, although he did come up quickly on a perfectly played rocket scorched by J.P. Crawford to end the IronPig’s decisive ninth inning. He has elite speed, and the range of a centerfielder to go along with a rifle of an arm I saw last season. Now, with his newfound power, he profiles as a corner outfielder as well, making him an even more versatile weapon.
The big league Braves are exceeding every expectation this season. While they still may be sellers at the deadline, it is likely going to take a Nick Markakis trade to open the door for Acuna as Ender Inciarte has center on lock down.
That’s ok though. I didn’t expect to see Acuna handle his promotions so fluidly, and I don’t think many other people did either. Allowing Acuna a few months to mature against the International League’s large bulk of former big league pitching will do wonders for his development. It’s not out of the question that Acuna gets a September call-up and goes all Gary Sanchez on the baseball world.
And that is simply astounding for a teenager with 189 career games under his belt.