Center fielder Andruw Jones famously hit a World Series home run for the Braves at 19-years old and went on to a stellar career in the majors. Center fielder Ronald Acuna turned 19 in December but likely is headed for high-A ball when minor-league camp breaks.
Still, Braves legend Chipper Jones was comparing Acuna to his former teammate Andruw in spring 2016. After a strong season in the minors, Acuna has shown enough potential with the big-league club this spring that Braves coaches still say he’s reminiscent of Jones.
“We were all talking about that,” Braves manger Brian Snitker said Sunday. “We were telling the guys that hadn’t been here, like Chipper. Everybody to a ‘T’ said, ‘He reminds me of Andruw.’
“Andruw probably had more power. Andruw could hit it over the light tower at 19. But this kid, just (with) game awareness, there’s a lot of similarities.”
Acuna played in his 10th Grapefruit League on Sunday and went 2-for-5 with a triple and a walk. Acuna led off the game with a single, beating out the throw by third baseman Ronald Torreyes, and then chased veteran lefty CC Sabathia with a two-out walk later in the inning. In the ninth inning Acuna rapped a two-run triple to right field against Yefrey Ramirez.
Acuna now is 10-for-22 (.364) this spring with two doubles and two walks.
“I’m very happy and excited and honored to be here, really,” Acuna said through an interpreter. “I’m very proud and honored that they gave me an invitation. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting any of that. I was coming in with the expectation that I was going to the minor-league camp.”
Instead, Acuna has been a regular fixture in the big-league lineup this spring. His 10 games played are tied for third-most among Braves players.
Baseball America ranked Acuna as the No. 67 prospect in baseball following the 2016 season. That doesn’t crack the top five on the Braves’ talent-rich farm, and Acuna has just 171 plate appearances above rookie league.
But Acuna appears to be on the fast track to the majors. He began 2016 with Rome, making him one of the younger prospects in the league, before a thumb injury in May sent him back to the Gulf Coast League for rehabilitation.
Acuna returned to Rome in August and ended up hitting .311 (46-for-148) with a .387 on-base percentage in 41 games at that level. His totals included 18 walks, two doubles, two triples, four home runs and 14 stolen bases in 21 attempts.
That production, plus his showing in the Grapefruit League, are signs that Acuna “could come quick” to the majors, Snitker said.
“You never know,” Snitker said. “He’s done well in spring training but he is going to face guys that have been around a while. They start getting up in the ‘high-A’ all of those (pitchers) are older, they’ve been around, they change speeds a lot.
“But just watching him go here, he’s hit change-up, breaking ball, fastball, two strikes. He’s fouled balls off and been late (swinging) and then caught up, made adjustments pitch to pitch. I’ve seen a lot of really good things that you see in young hitters. His at-bats have been really impressive.”
Acuna said he worked with Jones when the latter visited Rome in his role as a Braves special assistant. He said Jones “taught me a couple hints” about playing the outfield, and the two have stayed in touch.
Acuna said he’s felt comfortable while facing major leaguers for the first time.
“It’s impressive to see what these guys can do but, at the same time, baseball is a game,” Acuna said. “It’s the same game. The talent is a little better but it’s the same game so I just try to take the same approach going into it.”