Before becoming the Braves manager, Brian Snitker spent two decades helping to develop prospects in the minor leagues, where baseball is all about kids and potential. He had a 20-year-old David Justice on his team, a 21-year-old Brian McCann, a 21-year-old Rafael Furcal. Every day, he was excited to see them play. Kind of like now. Kind of like with 20-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. and 21-year-old Ozzie Albies, the young duo Snitker has atop his lineup this year. Kind of like that, except these guys are doing it in the major leagues.
“It’s like you can’t wait to get to the ballpark to watch them play,” Snitker says.
They’re exciting. They’re energetic. They’re the two youngest position players in the majors, and they’re two of the biggest reasons to start taking the Braves seriously as possible contenders this season and as a definite threat to win big things in the years to come.
Baseball is getting younger. We all know that. You can win big with kids, the way the 2016 Cubs won a World Series with 22-year-old shortstop Addison Russell or the way the Astros won a year later with Carlos Correa, who had just turned 23.
And while the Braves may not have the pitching to win a World Series right now, they find themselves atop the National League East in part because of Acuna and especially Albies, who may have been the best player in the entire league in April.
Albies hit nine home runs in the season’s first month, tied for most in the National League. He led the league with 12 doubles and impressed at second base.
Acuna joined the Braves on April 25 after spending the season’s first three-plus weeks at Triple-A Gwinnett. He hit his first home run a day later, and through 13 games is hitting .302 with a .917 OPS. He has already hit two tape-measure home runs, a 451-foot shot off the Mets’ Jason Vargas on May 3 at Citi Field and a 434-footer off Blake Snell on Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
Together, they are the best reason to watch the Braves, one of the best reasons to watch baseball in general.
Even for opponents. “I love to see those guys play,” Mets infielder Jose Reyes says.
It’s a cool story, and not just because we’re always drawn to youngsters who look like they’ll be the next generation of baseball’s biggest stars. It’s fun because Albies and Acuna are such close friends, a kid from Curacao and a kid from Venezuela who signed with the Braves a year apart but quickly became as close as two players could be.
“We’re like brothers,” says Albies, the 21-year-old second baseman from Curacao. “Right away when we met, we were good with each other.”
They met soon after Acuna signed in 2014. He wasn’t well known then and had signed for just $100,000 in an international market where other players were getting as much as $3.2 million.
“I wasn’t considered a top prospect,” he says through an interpreter.
Albies quickly knew otherwise.
“One of the first games I saw him, I told the guys, ‘He’s going to be a good one,'” Albies says.
Albies signed in 2013 for $350,000, but Acuna quickly realized he was going to be a good one, too.
“I was just kind of taken aback by his talent,” Acuna says.
Eventually, so was everyone else.
Signed as a shortstop, Albies moved to second base after the Braves traded for Dansby Swanson in December 2015. Swanson was the higher-rated prospect at the time, although by then the Braves were in love with Albies, too.
Albies jumped in the prospect ratings to become Baseball America‘s 11th-best and MLB.com’s 12th-best in the game heading into the 2017 season. He wasn’t eligible for the prospect rankings this past winter, because he played 57 major league games for the Braves in 2017.
Acuna soared through the ratings, going from 67th to first on Baseball America‘s list in just a year’s time and going from unranked to second overall on the MLB.com list. By that point, scouts were so high on Acuna that one told Bleacher Report “his skills shadow” those of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero.
“Bottom line, he resembles a 30-30 type, a terrific athlete in the middle of the order playing a skilled position,” the scout said in February. “He has a demeanor like Vlad. Loves to play. Work habits, makeup, instincts are sound. He’s a guy you edge up on your seat when he gets in the box.”
Acuna showed that last year, when he went through three levels of the Braves farm system and hit a combined 21 home runs with 44 steals in 139 games. For a few weeks in July, after he was called up to Triple-A Gwinnett and before Albies was summoned to join the Braves, they batted one-two in their International League lineup.
Nine months later, they’d be doing the same in the big leagues.
They may not stay at the top of the order, though, because both have the power to hit further down. It’s true of Acuna, solidly built and 6-feet tall, but also of Albies, even though he is just 5’8″. While the nine home runs by the end of April were a surprise to some, they didn’t shock everyone.
“He’s strong as a little bull,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer says.
“Everywhere you touch him, it’s like touching stone,” Braves reliever Peter Moylan says.
Fair enough, but Albies wasn’t a home run hitter in the minors. He hit just one in his first two seasons, then six in 618 plate appearances in 2016. Altogether, he hit 16 homers in 390 minor league games—the same number he hit in his first 87 games in the majors.
“I’m surprised he has shown this much power this early,” Seitzer says. “He told me he hadn’t hit a home run left-handed until last year.”
This season alone, the switch-hitting Albies has six left-handed homers.
Albies himself has no answer for why the home runs have come at such a pace.
“I just play the game,” he says. “See the ball. Hit the ball.”
The stats are impressive, but to the Braves, Albies has never been defined by his numbers.
“He’s been the youngest guy on every team he has played for, and he’s been a leader on every team he has played for,” Snitker says. “When [manager Randy Ingle] had him in [Class A] Rome, that’s all he talked about. He’s a very charismatic, mature, intelligent young man. Just a neat kid.”
Acuna is quieter, but he has intangibles the Braves like, too. Some of it comes from growing up in a baseball family. His father, Ronald Sr., played eight seasons in the minor leagues, including three as Reyes’ teammate in the Mets system.
Reyes remembers Ronald Sr. talking about his son, who was just four years old when they were teammates with the 2002 St. Lucie Mets. Reyes got to know Acuna in the years that followed, having remained close friends with the boy’s father.
“The talent was always there,” Reyes says. “That kid is going to be a superstar for a long time.”
He’s worth watching, and Ronald Sr.’s other three sons may be worth watching, as well. Jon Heyman of FRS Sports reported recently that Luisangel Acuna could get as much as $500,000 when the international signing period opens July 2.
“We’re hoping to have all four in the big leagues,” Ronald Jr. says.
That’s four Acuna brothers—plus Albies, who is like a brother to Ronald Jr.
“It’s great they have each other here,” says Moylan, the Braves reliever. “They can be 20-year-olds on their own, and then they come here to the ballpark and be mature players.”
They’re mature for their age. They’re talented. And they’re the biggest reason to believe a Braves team that has been under .500 the last four seasons is well on the way toward another long run of success.
By Danny Knobler