Luis Salazar stood outside a dugout in the bright Arizona sun one morning in late October and talked about one of his favorite subjects, Braves phenom prospect Ronald Acuna.
Salazar managed the outfielder in Double-A and again in the Arizona Fall League. The temperature in Peoria had already reached 86, batting practice was over, and air conditioning and lunch awaited at the clubhouse a quarter-mile walk away, with a game to start in 90 minutes.
Didn’t matter to Salazar, who was in no hurry to end a discussion with a reporter about Acuna, who started the 2017 season in Single-A and could start the 2018 season in the majors, or arrive soon after, and bat in the middle of the Braves’ lineup for many years.
This is a youngster with gifts so special that Salazar, a 61-year-old former major league player and longtime minor league manager, a man who lost an eye after being hit by a foul ball six years ago and was back managing the next month, a baseball lifer in every sense of the word, sounds like a kid himself when discussing Acuna, a fellow Venezuelan and the Braves’ proverbial golden child.
He’s their highest-rated and most-anticipated prospect since Jason Heyward was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2009. Acuna won that same award in 2017.
“Hey, this kid is going to be a star,” said Salazar, who doesn’t toss around such praise lightly. “Hope he stays healthy, plays hard. But the most important thing, when you’re that age and hit a ball to the opposite field, a bomb, off one of the best (AFL) pitchers, (Mitch) Keller – that guy has the best stuff I’ve seen here so far, besides (Braves prospect Max) Fried.”
Acuna had lined an opposite-field homer off Keller a couple of days earlier, the only homer the elite Pirates prospect allowed in six starts in the fall league, where the right-hander went 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA in 23-2/3 innings.
“He hit a fastball down and away to right-center field,” Salazar said. “I mean, it was very impressive.”
A couple of hours after Salazar praised Acuna’s power and speed, Acuna hit two homers and a double that afternoon in a 9-8 win against Salt River, his second consecutive three-hit game starting a tear that would help him become the AFL’s youngest-ever Most Valuable Player. He hit .325 with a league-leading seven home runs in 23 games and posted a .414 OBP and 1.053 OPS that was second-best in the AFL.
Whether it’s opening day or late April – if he spends two or three weeks in the minors it would mean an extra, seventh season of contractual control down the line – most expect Acuna to be in the Braves’ lineup soon.
“I’m using this to be prepared for that moment, when that moment comes,” Acuna said through an interpreter in Arizona. “I’ve been sitting down and visualizing that moment. That’s the reason why I’m here, working day by day to try to be ready for that day when that day comes.”
Did we mention Acuna turned 20 on Monday, a week before Christmas? He was the youngest player in Double-A last season when he played for Salazar’s Mississippi Braves – the second of Acuna’s three minor league stops in 2017 – and hit .326 there with 24 extra-base hits (nine homers), 14 steals and an .895 OPS in 57 games.
That performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett, where Acuna was again the youngest player and again hit even better than he had at the previous level, like he’d done upon arriving in Mississippi after 28 games at high Single-A Florida to start the season.
At Gwinnett, the wiry-strong speedster hit a sizzling .344 with 25 extra-base hits (nine homers) and a .940 OPS in 54 games while competing against players who were mostly at least three to five years older.
He finished the season with a collective .325 average, 31 doubles, eight triples, 21 homers, 82 RBIs, 44 stolen bases and an .896 OPS in 139 games for three minor league affiliates.
“We have to temper our expectations – a little bit,” said Jonathan Schuerholz, Braves assistant director of player development. “This guy is talented. We really like what he’s going to become. He’s got a chance to become a cornerstone position player for us in the big leagues for a long time. But he hasn’t done it at the big league level yet. There’s still some polishing up he’s got to do, some attention-to-detail stuff that he’s got to get done.
“But you look at the ability, you look at the talent level, I mean it’s – it’s a special, special talent.”
Salazar said, “It’s hard to find a player at that age with the talent that this guy has. Very rarely will you find it.”
Salazar himself played more than 1,300 games in parts of 13 seasons in the majors and finished with over 1,000 hits. He hit .313 with 13 triples and 22 steals in 153 games in his first two seasons with the Padres at the start of the 1980s, had 32 steals in his third season, hit .333 (9-for-27) in three postseasons with the Padres and Cubs, and hit 14 homers in both his fourth season with the Padres and again in his 14th season in 1991, at age 35 with the Cubs. Those 14 homers in ’91 included two in one game off Giants pitcher Bud Black.
What we’re saying is, he’s seen some things, done some things. But Salazar said he’s not seen many young players like Acuna.
“This guy is a five-tool player, and I mean natural,” he said. “You go look at some other (prospects), they’ve got two or three (tools), but five? He’s got five solid tools.”
Indeed, Acuna gets “plus” grades across the board in all five categories: hit for average, hit for power, defense, arm strength and speed. He’s got a cannon for an arm and not only has blazing speed, but the confidence and aggressiveness to try taking an extra base if there’s any chance at all of making it (and sometimes even if there’s not a great chance).
An intrepid outfielder, he doesn’t believe in taking it safe and letting a ball bounce in front of him for a single if there’s a chance he can make a diving catch, as he showed in Arizona. In one game, Acuna lost a ball in the early-afternoon sun in left field – a not-uncommon occurrence in the AFL – and moments later made a spectacular diving catch near the left-field line with two outs and runners on. He got up and bounded off the field to applause. If that ball got past him, the hit would’ve driven in the go-ahead run.
“He plays the game at a level like he’s just out in the backyard having fun,” Schuerholz said. “The really good ones do that, you know what I mean? They’re just out there, nothing fazes them. They strike out, next at-bat they hit a line-drive double to right-center or whatever. He just plays the game loose and easy, trusts his ability, his confidence, and I don’t think that’s ever going away.”
In everything he does on the field, Acuna’s mannerisms, his body language, his smile, give off a vibe that says he’s good and that he’s enjoying being good.
“That’s the way that I play,” Acuna said. “I like to have fun, like to enjoy what I’m doing, either when I’m playing or on the bench. I’m doing what I love to do, that’s the reason why I enjoy every single moment.”
Salazar said, “I don’t think he realizes how good he is because he’s like a kid. This kid has a lot of potential to be one of the best. And he’s going to (play in the majors) next year, no doubt about it. When you start in A-ball, then dominate Double-A and dominate Triple-A (in the same season), at that age? You don’t see that. Only Andruw Jones does that.”
A lot of people described Chipper Jones as cocky when he was a minor leaguer and in his early years in the majors. Jones was the kind of player you loved having on your team and hated if he was on the other team because you knew he could beat you and would enjoy doing it, not walk away quietly with his head down.
Acuna is similar. Huge talent, confidence to match. He believes in himself, and the Braves certainly do, too.
The Braves have a corner outfield spot open after trading Matt Kemp to the Dodgers. No one doubts Acuna will fill it, and soon. He would probably have to struggle at Triple-A for his big-league debut to be pushed back to midseason, and no one expects him to struggle ever again in the minors.
“He’s not a finished product yet,” Schuerholz said. “And like any good player, those guys get to the big leagues they’re not a finished product. But he’s rushed through the system so fast that we have to make sure that we’re on top of the little things that really get exposed in the big leagues if we’re not careful. So we want to make sure that they’re ready to compete and help us win baseball games at the big-league level.”
Schuerholz added, “I really love the kid. He’s 19 years old, has handled himself very well all the way through.”