Ronald Acuna was having a good time with his batting-practice group Saturday morning, as he always does. The buzzed-about Braves phenom, baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect, plays the game with a sense of joie de vivre.
Or, in his native tongue, el amor de la vida.
Acuna loves to play baseball, that much is apparent almost every moment he’s on the field. The 20-year-old Venezuelan smiles and laughs like a kid, then swings, runs and throws like the most splendid athlete on the field, which on most days he probably is.
“He has fun out there – imagine that, having fun playing the game,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said, then went on for a while about former Braves and current Hall of Famers who similarly acted like kids having a blast during their playing days. Guys like John Smoltz and Greg Maddux shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice or Chipper Jones doing most anything.
“If you asked Chipper to go stand on his head at third base for 10 minutes he’d have done it,” Snitker said.
But back to Acuna, who entered Saturday’s game against the Pirates with a Grapefruit League-leading .393 batting average and the second-highest OBP (.469), then raised both of those by reaching base in all four of plate appearances in a 15-1 win with a single, double, walk and hit-by-pitch.
Acuna is hitting .433 with a 1.095 OPS and also had two stolen bases Saturday to give him a team-high four this spring.
He hit line drives and towering long balls to every part of venerable McKechnie Field (now LECOM Park) during batting practice, and to wrap up one round he hit an opposite-field fly and dropped his bat before jogging toward first.
Pimping it, in the modern baseball vernacular.
Only it was windy, and this particular ball didn’t carry out like so many others had. It bounced on the warning track, much to the delight of his pals standing around the cage, all of whom razzed him in Spanish. Acuna just smiled and went with it, and a few minutes later he was back in the batting cage hitting more blasts to the far reaches of the ballpark and beyond.
When a freelance writer from Bradenton asked Snitker what it was that really stood out about the kid in the manager’s view, Snitker began as he has so many other times all spring. He doesn’t tire of talking about this prospect, as he and Braves officials clearly aren’t concerned about giving Acuna more praise than he’s due or building the hype to unrealistic levels.
Acuna is that good and everyone knows it.
“He’s done kind of what everybody thought he would coming in,” Snitker said. “He’s a very talented young man. He’s done really well. All our young guys, about a week ago I think the spring training adrenaline started to ebb and they started playing their game. You’re seeing him, (Alex) Jackson, (Austin) Riley, a lot of these young guys kind of, they’re over the spring training thing and are starting to look like what we think they are.”
With Acuna, it only took a couple of games to get past any adrenaline surge. After going 0-for-7 in his first two games, he’s 13-for-23 in his past nine games, including a 3-for-3 game with a homer March 2 against the Yankees in Tampa.
“He’s the total package,” Snitker said. “He’s going to be an exciting player for a lot of years.”
Snitker said Friday that the Braves were still trying to sort out left field, but that’s only because they’ll probably need to have someone play the position for the first weeks of the season until Acuna arrives, if they start him at Triple-A Gwinnett for service-time reasons as it’s expected they will.
If the Braves keep him at Triple-A until at least April 13, they are assured of having an extra (seventh) season of contractual control before Acuna could become a free agent.
It was assumed entering spring training that Lane Adams and Preston Tucker might share left-field duties until Acuna was ready to take over, and that still seems the most likely scenario, though Adams has struggled this spring. The Braves know what Adams can do after watching the speedster surpass expectations last season when he was called up a couple of times from Triple-A and eventually secured the fourth-outfielder job and filled in admirably for an injured Matt Kemp.
Once Acuna arrives, the only question over the coming years will be which outfield position the Braves have him play, because he has the skills to excel at any of the three. It’s just that left field is the one open for now, with two-time Gold Glover Ender Inciarte entrenched in center field and right fielder Nick Markakis entering the final years of his four-year, $44 million contract.
By David O’Brien