Bill Shanks

Braves’ Acuna will be back in Atlanta soon enough

Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. bats against the Detroit Tigers during a spring baseball exhibition game March 11 in Lakeland, Fla.
Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. bats against the Detroit Tigers during a spring baseball exhibition game March 11 in Lakeland, Fla. AP

The Braves sent Ronald Acuna to the minor league camp Monday. He’s going to have just one more stint in the minors before he becomes a household name in the Major Leagues.

Acuna’s .432 batting average, .519 on base percentage and four home runs put him at or near the top of the statistical leaderboard in the Grapefruit League. He could have hit .600 and he was still going down to the minors, at least for 16 calendar days.

The decision was not about Acuna’s ability. He’s ready for the big leagues. This was all about a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that gave the Braves no choice but to demote their star prospect, regardless of how well he played this spring.

If the Braves placed Acuna on the opening day roster, they would have his contract under their control for six years. If they wait a little over two weeks to call him up, they would have Acuna for this season and then six more years of control.

So, for two-plus weeks, who cares.

The Braves had Jason Heyward, himself a hotshot prospect eight years ago, on Atlanta’s 2010 opening day roster. That was a team pushing for the playoffs. This year’s team is just not there yet. They are rebuilding and there’s little chance of making the playoffs this season.

So, for two-plus weeks, who cares.

Acuna may miss 11 or 12 games for Atlanta while he is “developing” more in the minor leagues. That’s worth sacrificing to gain an extra year of having Acuna under a somewhat affordable contract. And if this kid is as good as everyone says he’s going to be, the Braves will want him under a cheap contract for as long as possible before he wins the lottery.

And by all indications, the Braves may have a star on their hands. Last year, as a 19-year-old, Acuna flew through three levels of the minor leagues. He hit .325 with 21 home runs, 82 runs batted in and 44 stolen bases. Then, in the Arizona Fall League, against other great prospects, Acuna hit .325 again with seven home runs in only 83 at bats.

It’s not like Acuna has hit his four home runs off minor league pitchers getting innings in spring training games this month. His home runs came off Masahiro Tanaka, Aaron Sanchez, Mike Fiers and Zach Eflin – all members of a MLB starting rotation.

Acuna has dazzled in the field, with several diving catches, and he’s run the bases well. I’ve asked several coaches what his weakness is, and no one can name one. Coaches are somewhat convinced this kid is going to be a star, which is somewhat scary.

There’s a different feel to this phenom than others, like Heyward and Jeff Francoeur, both of whom did not live up to their unrealistic hype with the Braves. This is more like what we heard with Chipper Jones 23 years ago and Andruw Jones a year later.

Of course, it’s hard to predict what Acuna could do right out of the gate. Maybe he picks right up where he left off in Florida, or maybe it takes him a while to get acclimated to big league pitching. But can he be any worse than Matt Kemp, last year’s left fielder? Doubt it.

Having a star will likely speed up Atlanta’s rebuilding process. They have pitchers coming, maybe even a young third baseman later this season, as well. But Acuna could be the one we’re setting our schedule around to watch play by mid-April. He might be that good. And that’s certainly worth waiting two weeks to keep him around for an extra season.

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