LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. – It used to be the only way into the Venezuelan fishing village of La Sabana was by four-wheel-drive vehicle. Rolando Petit, a Venezuelan native who has scouted Latin America for the Atlanta Braves for 26 years, knew the way, though. He would slog back through the thickets to La Sabana years ago to hunt for players. That is where he saw Ronald Acuna on a ballfield tucked behind the forests and along the Venezuelan coastline.
Ronald Acuna Sr., that is.
“Good player,” Petit says. “I saw him 20 years ago. He signed with the Mets. I compared him to Raul Mondesi, who was very good for the Dodgers.”
Petit, 50, was back in La Sabana five years ago — with the help of a better road — and found another Ronald Acuna, the son. He was 14 1/2 years old, and Petit’s eyes went wide with interest just watching him trot out onto the field.
2016: Alex Bregman, Astros
2015: Blake Snell, Rays
2014: Kris Bryant, Cubs
2013: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
“He has body life,” Petit says. “Run, jump, throw or just walk. You could see it. Body life.”
Petit smiles and says, “You look for the genes. His mom is 6-foot-1 1/2 and an athlete. His uncles are 6-foot-7 and basketball players. His dad was a good athlete and is a good man. It’s all about projections. You could see the skill, but also how he is as a person.”
It was Acuna’s athleticism that caught Petit’s eye, and then the kid started to throw the ball around. Then he swung the bat, which whizzed through the strike zone, even when held by a 14 year old.
La Sabana has fewer than 7,000 people. It is still fairly remote, so there was not as much hubbub about Acuna five years ago, but there is now.
After a quick, sudden rise through the Atlanta system the last eight months, Acuna has been named USA TODAY Sports’ Minor League Player of the Year for 2017. He started the season with the Braves’ Class A team in the Florida State League, improving as the competition got better in stops with the Class AA (Pearl) Mississippi Braves and Class AAA Gwinnett (Ga.) Braves.
After getting promoted to Gwinnett following the All-Star break, Acuna hit .344 in 54 games and his defense was superb.
Asked about his season, Acuna says through interpreter Luis Cuadrado, “He is very happy this season because last year he played just 40 games because he broke his (left) hand. He is thankful to God to keep him healthy this season, and he was able to make good progress.”
Acuna, who projects as the Braves right fielder when he is eventually called up, has been a revelation this year. When the Braves started to rebuild two years ago with a flurry of trades, the buzz was mostly around shortstop Dansby Swanson, center fielder Ender Inciarte and pitchers Sean Newcomb and Max Fried, among others, who were all acquired through trades.
Acuna, 19, is homegrown. He was an unknown in 2013 when Petit first saw him and signed for just $100,000 at 16. Petit had contract papers sent from Atlanta with the bonus offer. He told Ronald Acuna Sr. and his wife, Leonelis, “If you agree, we will get this deal done today,” Petit says.
“They called me back in 10 minutes and said yes. There were three or four other teams involved, but they liked the Braves. I know La Sabana. I’ve been going there since I was 10. A beautiful place. I had a connection.”
A terrific get
Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that when he saw Acuna play in the 2015 fall instructional league, he was mesmerized by the skill level. Cox saw Acuna again in late fall 2016 in Australia and was still high on him. Acuna had status in the organization with general manager John Coppolella, but his value soared even more in the organization through the winter and into spring.
Indeed, Acuna was a terrific get. He has outplayed many of the million-dollar bonus babies. He still has some growing to do, which is why Acuna was not part of the September call-ups and will report to the Arizona Fall League.
In what might be one of his last games in minor league baseball, Acuna faced the kind of pitching he will see often in the big leagues. On Sept. 3, Durham Bulls right-hander Brent Honeywell, the Tampa Bay Rays top pitching prospect, carved up Acuna in three at-bats — a strikeout, a pop-up out between first and home and a moderately hit groundout to shortstop.
Still, you could see the flash of the bat. The right-handed-hitting Acuna has no extraneous movement, no bat waggle, no hip action. But when he does move, it is with the force of a 6-5 slugger. Acuna is 6-0 and 180 pounds.
“It is bat grip and bat speed,” Petit says, pointing to the inside of his wrist. “This is where it is. You look back at a guy like Rod Carew, a great hitter, who was wiry. He had the bat speed from the wrists.
“On top of that, Ronald has great timing. So you see it is the timing and the bat speed. You could see that from Eric Davis, great hitter from the Reds. Same approach. Robinson Cano is not a huge monster, but he hits with power.”
Adds Petit, “Ronald has a rhythm. He also has instincts for the game. How are you going to teach that? You don’t.”
Acuna, through the interpreter, explained his style at the plate: “After he signed, he adopted that approach, very quiet, not like other guys who are moving a lot. That’s what he chose to be as a hitter. He always believes his hands are faster than the ball; that’s why he stays still and quiet. He always believed he can get to the pitch.”
In other words, Acuna does not guess. He does not start his swing early in fastball counts.
Cuadrado says Acuna told him, “His only focus is to see the ball and hit the ball. His approach is to go look for a fastball. If he gets a breaking ball, he just reacts to it.”
Gordon Blakeley, a longtime scout and special assistant to the general manager for the Braves, says that quick-strike bat can take away the pitcher’s breaking ball as an out pitch.
“He is a really good strike breaking ball hitter,” Blakely says. “You put a breaking ball in the zone, he can hurt you.”
Petit says he saw two pictures side by side, the 19-year-old Acuna and the 19-year-old Andruw Jones, the former Braves Gold Glove center fielder. They were both in their batting stance and were remarkably similar. Jones burst on the scene in 1996 at 19 for the Braves and became a fixture.
Acuna figures to be a fixture, as well. He might have struggled against Honeywell, but his defense can pick up the slack. In the first inning against Durham, he glided under a fly ball in right field. A runner at second tagged up but stayed put as Acuna put a throw on the bag on a line.
He will report to the Arizona Fall League in a couple of weeks, but first he is going back to Venezuela to see his family. Major league teams have spent the last two weeks of the minor league season trying to persuade their Venezuelan prospects not to return home because of the political turmoil.
Through Cuadrado: “He’s concerned about his country, but he lives in the countryside, and that particular area he feels more secure and safer.”
Acuna does not seem to be overanxious for the big leagues. He has been an eager learner, Petit says, going station to station to station in the minors.
Asked about his path to the big leagues by Cuadrado, the response is, “When the moment comes, he’ll be ready. It’s God’s will when he will get there. He is not in a hurry at this point.
“Since he has signed with professional baseball, he came with the understanding that he needed to improve and to listen to his coaches. They are here for his betterment, and he trusts them.”
The voting process
The USA TODAY Sports Minor League Player of the Year was selected through voting on a pool of finalists by USA TODAY Sports writers and editors plus readers at USATODAY.com. Each staffer’s vote counted for one point. The winner of the online poll (Zack Littell) received one. The breakdown:
Player, team … Points
Acuna, OF, Braves … 5
Zack Littell, RHP, Minnesota Twins … 2
Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox … 1
Rhys Hoskins, 1B-OF, Philadelphia Phillies … 1
Jack Flaherty, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals … 0
By Bill Glier