Ronald Acuna: the Braves’ Last, Best, and Only Hope

Ronald Acuna is the next Braves’ super prospect who should play at Suntrust Park. (via Thomson200)

Major League Baseball hammered the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday for circumventing rules governing the signing of international amateurs, banning their former general manager for life and declaring 12 minor league players, including vaunted prospect Kevin Maitan, free agents as part of sweeping penalties against the organization.

— Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports

One of the downsides of the mostly awesome phenomenon of human consciousness is the ability to worry about the future. We know the future exists, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in it. “In other animals, unpredictability or uncertainty can lead to heightened vigilance, but I think what’s unique about humans is the ability to reflect on the fact that these future events are unknown or unpredictable,” says Dan Grupe, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. “Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans in particular.”

— Julie Beck, The Atlantic

For a team with as much recent success as the Braves have had, it’s hard to come to terms with their current predicament — stripped of a dozen prospects, severely capped in international spending, with their recently-fired GM John Coppolella banned for life from baseball.

Yet here’s what the Braves have done during my lifetime:

  • 1984-1990, ages 1-6: 459-659, .416, near-permanent cellar-dwellers
  • 1991-2005, ages 7-21: 1431-931, .606, five league championships, one world championship, fourteen consecutive division-winning playoff appearances
  • 2006-2011, ages 22-27: 501-471, .515, a single wild-card finish, a first-round exit, and bunch of middling-to-bad finishes
  • 2012-2013, ages 28-29: 190-134, .586, a division championship, a wild card, and two first-round exits
  • 2014-2017, ages 30-33: 286-361, .442, in the cellar and rebuilding.

Just like a few years ago, when the team trashed Frank Wren on his way out, it is clear that the team is in profound disarray and officials are eager to display their bitter contempt for the man they believe put them there. As Jeff Passan wrote in early October, at the time Coppolella was ousted:

The chaos sowed during Coppolella’s tenure burbled with palace intrigue and leaves behind an organization in flux, even as it possesses arguably the best minor league system in the game… Braves employees, even those who once were Coppolella loyalists, saw the proud organization of 14 consecutive division titles rotting from the inside. Now they wonder how, exactly, it’s going to weather the internal turmoil in concert with the eventual penalties levied by MLB.

“This place is totally [expletive] up,” one high-ranking Braves employee said last week. “I just hope when it blows up, it doesn’t take all of us down.”

One month before that story came out, Ronald Acuna was named the Minor League Player of the Year for 2017. He is the son of a good Venezuelan ballplayer who never got signed, but the Braves scout who signed Ronald Jr. also scouted his dad and knew the family was full of gifted athletes. He inked a contract as a 16-year-old in 2013 for $100,000, which means that he was viewed as a fine prospect, though not an otherworldly one.

Acuna turned 19 last December, after ending the year in A-ball. He began this year in High-A, then was promoted to Double-A after 28 games and to Triple-A after another 57 games at that level. He’ll turn 20 just before Christmas, and has a good chance of a spot in the Braves’ outfield on Opening Day.

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The major league team that awaits him has been wretched. Nine years ago, in my long-lost mid-20s, I wrote a bathetic piece for the Huffington Post on what it meant to me to try to root for a truly bad team that had, in my experience, only ever been extraordinarily good. Basically, I had become something of a fair weather fan: if they were good I was paying attention, and if not, I was focused on other things in my life and career. (Not on other teams, though. To quote James Joyce: “I had lost the faith, [but not] self respect.”)

I revisited the subject a year and a half ago, interviewing a lot of Braves fans on my blog, some of whom had been with the team since they first came to Atlanta in the 1960s, on the alienation that they felt about the rebuild, as the club tore the major league roster down to the studs in service of rebuilding around prospects.

It basically comes to this: if Ronald Acuna comes to the major leagues and lives up to the hype, I’ll follow every minute of it. But if he doesn’t, and the rebuild falls apart, and the Braves are mired in another half-decade of mediocrity, I’m going to have a lot of trouble finding time to watch baseball.

It certainly hasn’t been easy to watch the games lately. Three seasons into the rebuild, the farm has begun to graduate some key prospects to the major league team, but the youth movement wasn’t enough to keep the team from another 90-loss season in 2017.

The previous top prospect in the system, Dansby Swanson, came up and scuffled on both sides of the ball, combinging a 66 wR+ with 20 errors and a fielding percentage of .965. His mate across the keystone, Ozzie Albies, fared far better in half as much playing time, a 112 wRC+ with three errors. And so it’s been with all the new kids. Some middling-to-good result. Some bad. Some so insignificant as to barely register.

 

It’s obviously too early to draw any definitive conclusions. When Kansas City hired Dayton Moore in mid-2006, he quickly began to establish expectations for what he called “The Process”: a prospect-driven rebuild that would eventually result in a championship. After four years, the 2011 Royals had little more than a great farm system, but at least it may have been the best farm system in Baseball America’s history of rankings. Five years after that, they finally held the trophy above their heads. Meanwhile, the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow in 2011 as well, and he brought home a championship within six years.

Just three years into their own teardown, the Braves certainly have a plausible argument for why fans should leave their pitchforks and torches at home a little while longer.

That said, for the past decade, the Braves have told their fans to trust that they know what they’re doing, because of the previous decade and a half of excellence. But I don’t think they were as savvy as they claim; I think it was a more irreproducible combination of luck and skill, along with a baseball skillset that worked very well in the pre-sabermetric era, but that did not adapt as well to the analytic revolution.

Chipper Jones illustrates this history very well. The Braves had the first pick in the 1990 draft because their 65-97 record in 1989 was the worst in baseball. Famously, general manager Bobby Cox was interested in Todd Van Poppel, but Van Poppel turned down their offer, and so the Braves went to Jones, their second choice, a native of DeLand, Fla., whose country southern accent would sound good in postgame interviews for years to come. Jones missed all of 1994 due to injury, but he finished second in the Rookie of the Year race in 1995 (narrowly losing to Hideo Nomo), and was one of the best players in the league for another 17 years.

A decade later in 2005, Jones was an elder statesman as the Braves unveiled a youth movement of new southern boys, including Georgians Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Kyle Davies, Blaine Boyer and Macay McBride. The “Baby Braves” constituted the largest single rookie class ever to debut on a playoff team, and they helped push the otherwise aging Braves across the finish line for their 14th division championship since 1991. (I consider them consecutive because the 1994 postseason was canceled; Expos fans disagree.)

Hitting .400 for much of August, Francoeur eventually finished third in the Rookie of the Year race (behind Ryan Howard and Willy Taveras), and his photogenic smile convinced the Braves to push him as the new face of the team. But despite his tools, he was a pretty bad baseball player, incapable of getting on base and almost entirely worthless after his speed and range left him in his mid-twenties. The Braves kept him until midway through 2009, when they eventually jettisoned him in return for a post-concussion Ryan Church, a once-good player who would never again play effectively.

Jones was a good player who looked like a good player because he did everything effortlessly and well; Francoeur was a bad player who looked as though he did things well. That was the kind of team the Braves became. The difference between fiscal prudence and being a cheapskate is whether you are focused on maximizing value or minimizing cost. The Braves in recent years have claimed the former while accomplishing the latter, perhaps because they struggled to distinguish between the two.

Now, Acuna is being compared to the Braves’ other Jones, Andruw, a preternaturally gifted player who debuted at the age of 19 in 1996 and swiftly became the youngest player in history to homer multiple times in the World Series. He went on to hit 368 home runs in 11 seasons plus that cup of coffee, while playing perhaps the greatest center field defense that has ever been played. Acuna won’t measure up to Jones with the glove — I’m not sure that even Willie Mays did — and like any mortal whose last name isn’t Griffey or Pujols, he’ll be hard-pressed to be a six-win player every year for a decade. But the comparison is telling.

The centerpiece of the rebuild, for a suspiciously long time, was Kevin Maitan, a prospect who was linked to the Braves in loud whispers for years before his 16th birthday. For nearly as long, Maitan has been hailed as the best international free agent prospect since Miguel Sano, and the best Venezuelan prospect since Miguel Cabrera.

As Passan writes, for Coppolella’s egregious misdeeds, “the Braves will have paid well over $20 million to players who no longer are part of their organization” — nearly a quarter of that to Maitan alone. It’s hard to think of how to react. On the one hand, this particular 17-year-old in Rookie ball could one day be an MVP. On the other hand, the Braves’ conduct was truly egregious, and this particular egregious conduct was all basically with the goal of taking advantage of a bunch of children with the sole purpose of making money off of them. Given more than few moments of thought, it’s gross.

With the loss of Maitan, and notwithstanding the recent graduates, the Braves still have an impressively pitching-rich system: Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Luiz Gohara, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and more. One of the stories the Braves have always told about themselves is that they know pitching, and perhaps they do. What is clear is that there is little else in this system.

A few days ago, Ronald Acuna was named the MVP of the Arizona Fall League, the youngest player ever to win the award, and the second teenager ever, after Gleyber Torres in 2016. Torres, born exactly 370 days before Acuna, is now ranked by MLB.com as the top prospect in all of baseball. Acuna is four spots behind him at fifth right now. Acuna could be the top prospect in all of baseball by the time he’s Torres’  age — but it’s unlikely that he’ll have the chance, considering that he’s expected to be an Opening Day starter.

Acuna is not the Braves’ only good prospect: they have six other prospects in MLB.com’s top hundred: Allard at 21, Wright at 30, Soroka at 33, Anderson at 50, Gohara at 82 and Wentz at 94. Until recently, they also had Maitan at 38. But these other prospects are not in Acuna’s league. The ease with which he excelled at every single level convinced nearly everyone in the league who scouted him or faced him that he had both the talent and the skill level to hold his own in the big leagues, not soon, but now. Historically, 19-year-olds who have the kind of year that he had have gone on to dominate in the majors not long afterwards. He has loud tools, quiet poise and limitless upside.

The scout who signed him for the Braves compared him to Rod Carew, and then to Eric Davis and Robinson Cano. Those players are not overwhelmingly similar to one another. Carew had average and speed, but little power; Davis had power and speed, but low averages; and Cano has average and power, but little speed. If Acuna is actually similar to all of them, then it suggests that there is nearly nothing he cannot do.

One of the most strangely universal things among sports fans is the ease with which we can convince ourselves that our entire hopes rest on the shoulders of a teenage boy.

But they do.


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
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RMD4
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RMD4
He really is. While it appears their stocking up on pitching prospects was predicated on one of them becoming a #2, it looks like a few of them will be 3/4’s. Some will be moved to the bullpen. Even if they add a pricey free agent their pitching staff will never be anything other than ‘good enough.’ But with Acuña, they’re going to be playoff contenders for the life of his contract. It’s funny how they expected pitching to carry the rebuild but their saving grace will be Acuña, Swanson, and Albies to complement Freeman, and Inciarte who fell into… Read more »
Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider
Alex, When I first heard about the problems with the foreign players and the punishment, I assumed it involved them cheating or exploiting the young players. But when I saw the explanation of their violations, it wasn’t so clear to me that they had done so. It seemed more like they had funneled excessive bonuses through another player but that all the players had eventually gotten their money. I assume you are correct, but can you explain what the Braves actually did because I’m still a bit confused. My feeling is that putting together great teams always involves a large… Read more »
OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

Yes, I have a hard time with the framing if their behavior as exploitative of the players involved. If anything, high end players made out like bandits and low end players got attention they may not otherwise have had.

Breaking rules for a competitive advantage? Yes, but hard to say that $20 million was handed out to these players and that they were exploited at the same time.

bosoxforlife
Member
Member
bosoxforlife
There is a fair chance that the D’Backs quickly realized that Swanson was not what they thought he was when he was drafted 1/1 and tried to pull a fast one on the Braves in the Miller deal, but it looks like the only useful player in the entire mess is Inciarte so the Braves ended up okay. They also did a great job of locking him up for chicken feed. Acuna, from my brief looks in the AFL, looks like he has the potential to carry the offense by himself. Freeman alone is more than the Angels have surrounding… Read more »
njguy73
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njguy73

“The Braves had the first pick in the 1990 draft because their 65-97 record in 1989 was the worst in baseball.”

No, it was the worst in the National League in 1989. The Tigers at 59-103 were worse, but the #1 overall pick rotates each year between worst in American and National League.

ND12
Member
ND12

“He is the son of a good Venezuelan ballplayer who never got signed,”

I’m pretty sure this is his dad (8 years of affiliated ball, 6 with the Mets):

https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=acuna-001ron

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider
I get your point, Alex, that the Braves were signing underage players in order to avoid having to pay them more later. On the other hand, a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in four years and a lot of these kids probably need the money today. I’m not justifying what the Braves did-the Braves did enough already with moving out of Atlanta to end my fandom and they clearly were not doing it for the benefit of the players-but it might be better for those kids’ families to get less money now rather than wait for more… Read more »