Bill Shanks

Braves young prospects impressing in Florida

Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna watches after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of Friday’s spring exhibition game against the New York Yankees in Tampa, Fla.
Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna watches after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of Friday’s spring exhibition game against the New York Yankees in Tampa, Fla. AP

It didn’t take long on the visit to Florida to realize the storyline for Braves spring training this year. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was comical how fast it happened.

Friday, I went to Tampa to see the Yankees host the Braves. The fifth batter for Atlanta in the first inning was Ronald Acuna Jr. To use my old TV home run call — Boom … Gone … See ya.

It likely took me longer to write those four words than it did for Acuna’s ball to leave the yard. His home run to dead center field left in about three seconds. It was a bomb, one that was accelerating in speed and height after it cleared the fence – with the wind blowing in.

The Braves lost the game, but who cares. The contributions the young players made in this early March spring training game meant more than the score. It was a great sign of what the Braves will have as the dominant theme this season – the improvement and success of young players.

Acuna was 3-for-3 with his first home run of the spring. Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo, expected to be in Atlanta’s infield, both had base hits. Alex Jackson, a young catching prospect, had a double that was hit off the top of the center field wall, just inches from being a home run. And Austin Riley, who had an opposite field home run Thursday, drove in a run with a single.

This is the process the Braves have been talking about – to have young players dominate the headlines. There are more in big league camp than ever before, and whether they are already with Atlanta or close this is their time to shine.

After seeing his home run Friday, it’s easy to be convinced the 20-year-old Acuna is going to contribute in Atlanta this season. His home run was not off a Yankees minor leaguer at the end of a game. It was off Masahiro Tanaka, one of New York’s main starters. It doesn’t seem to matter who is pitching against Acuna, he’s going to do something good.

The Braves will likely put Acuna in Triple-A for a few weeks to start the season. That will allow them to have an extra year of control of his contract, which matters when these kids are making millions of dollars. But don’t worry, Acuna will be in left field and Atlanta’s lineup soon.

Who knows the impact Acuna could have as a rookie. That’s always dangerous to predict. But nothing has phased this kid, whether it’s three levels of the minor leagues last year as a 19-year-old or the Arizona Fall League. Acuna has dominated every level, and now he’s hitting .421 in spring training.

This youth movement is palatable here. No longer are they filling the roster with Bartolo Colons like last year. This is all about giving the kids a chance to see what the future will be for this team. The new front office is being patient to see what they have inherited before making major moves. It’s the correct approach.

Albies (21 years old) and Camaro (24) will join Dansby Swanson (24) in Atlanta’s infield. Now Freddie Freeman is the old man at 28. He’s a baby compared to the 34-year old Nick Markakis, who will be in right field for one more season with catcher Tyler Flowers, who is 32. Ender Inciarte will roam center field and he’s still just 27.

Jackson and Riley could join them soon. And hey, we haven’t even talked about the pitchers, who are the core of this rebuilding process. That’s another column for another day, and more superlatives will be used to describe the future of those prospects.

If spring training is all about young players making a positive impression, the Braves are leading the league. They’re getting there, slowly but surely, and the glimpse we’re seeing now should provide hope the rebuilding process is moving forward.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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