With spring training upon us, there is no doubt that Ronald Acuna will make his appearance in the majors this season. After a stellar 2017 in the minors, ending with .325/.374/.522, being named the Arizona Fall League MVP (the youngest player to ever receive this honor), and Baseball America’s number one prospect, Braves fans are anxiously awaiting his arrival at the plate in Suntrust Park. With so much hype around Acuna in this upcoming season, are the Braves setting him up for failure? My hope is that the Braves don’t pressure him the way they did Dansby Swanson this time last year.
When Swanson began last season, there was so much surrounding him as the new face of the team, in a new stadium, and the hope that his skills would shine like they did at the end of the 2016 season. The Braves were ambitious when marketing Swanson, the home grown Georgia boy. The pressure to not only do well in 2017 but to excel laid heavy on Swanson’s shoulders and, sadly, he didn’t perform as well as the Braves fandom had originally hoped. Reflecting on this, Braves Broadcaster, Joe Simpson was quoted as saying that for someone with so little experience in the majors, it was almost too much expectation and pressure for Swanson to handle so soon when he had so little time to really prove himself.
Last season the Braves were desperate to have a fresh face that could take the organization into a new era, but Swanson’s time in the majors ended up being more of learning curve than stardom for the team. As we inch closer to opening day, with so little trades happening this off season, Acuna is ripe for the Braves to market heavily, as they did with Swanson. Acuna has maintained success within the sport thus far and seems to have a good head on his shoulders, so the question is – will he crack under so much pressure to perform? How will Acuna overcome this pressure and be a star this season?
Acuna came through the Braves’ farm system rather fast, much like Swanson. Swanson made his debut in the minors in 2015, but unluckily took a ball to the face, delaying his majors career to 2016. Acuna also made his professional debut in 2015 in the minors, but his time was much more productive than Dansby’s, despite a wrist injury he suffered in Rome. The difference here is time. Both players were injured and had to recover, however, Swanson’s injury was much worse than Acuna’s, which hurt his game because of the extended time he lost. Soon after Swanson recovered, he shot through the system, skipping Gwinnett entirely, to go straight to the majors all in one year. That was way too fast and, in my opinion, this ultimately led to his uneventful 2017 season.
Over the last two years, Acuna has gone through every level of the minors, gaining knowledge along the way. His time in the minors will serve him well when he gets to the majors. He’s had more playing time than Swanson, playing 236 games, while Swanson only played 138 games before being called up. Time is what it all comes down to. The minor league is meant to be a place of preparation, and if a player goes through the minors too quickly, lack of experience will show in the majors.
Acuna’s stats speak for themselves – 29 HRs, 82 RBIs, and 44 stolen bases – but his defensive play in the outfield is something the Braves haven’t seen since Andruw Jones. When Swanson was in Acuna’s position at the end of 2016, his stats were nowhere near the stats that Acuna has been able to generate thus far. Swanson ended 2016, before starting his rookie year in the majors, with .275/ .362/ .426. Acuna is an all-around quality player – from his amazing defensive play to his hot bat. This sets him apart from Swanson, and from any other player in the farm system, for that matter.
In 1993, a similar situation occurred with Chipper Jones and his arrival to the majors. Jones spent two years in the minors from 1991-1993 before going to the majors at the end of 93’. Unfortunately, he suffered an ACL tear in his left knee. This injury resulted in him missing the entire 1994 season. However, during his time off in 1994, he had time to mentally prepare for his return in 1995. Chipper played 456 minor league games before being called up, thus supporting the notion that time is everything. Acuna, Swanson, and Jones all had similar minor league experiences; they all got hurt early in their careers, and they all had hype surrounding them, but each one has something that makes them unique.
If Acuna can stay healthy and have the same confidence and drive he had this past season, the Braves will be set both in the outfield and at the plate. In an interview with Fox Sports, on February 15th at spring training in Orlando, Acuna was asked how he feels about all the attention he is getting in wake of the new season. He said that the attention does not bother him at all and that he is honored and grateful for all the accolades he has received. He also said that he is determined to make the team, which is evident by his showing up early for spring training.
He is in the right mindset – he is here to play and he is here to win. It’s important to note, though, that last year, aside from his 21 homers, Acuna struck out 144 times in 557 at bats and was caught stealing 20 times, which is not bad, but there is still room for improvement.
In an interview with the AJC, Dansby Swanson discussed Acuna and his talent, saying that:
“He’s a better athlete than everybody else. You’ll just have to wait and see. I mean, it’s pretty special. It’s one of those things that’s even hard to explain really. If you just watch it, you can tell there’s a difference, whether you know a lot about baseball or whether you know nothing, you just kind of say, that guy is doing something right.”
Even Chipper himself told MLB that:
“He’s way ahead of me [as a prospect], I’d have to lump him in with Andruw just because he graduated three [Minor] levels in one year. He’s as good a prospect as I’ve seen.”
One thing is for sure with Acuna – fans are in for something extraordinary in Braves country…that is if his playing time in the minors at all reflects how he will play in the majors. He plays outfield like Andruw Jones and has the star quality of Chipper Jones. The recipe is right for another phenom to emerge, and it’s been awhile since we’ve had one. Braves country is ready.