LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Ronald Acuna is still a teenager, but that won’t stop the Braves from putting the outfielder in their lineup in 2018, if and when he’s ready.
“If you’re ready, you’re ready,” new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said, speaking generally about unusually young players getting brought to the big leagues. “Andruw Jones, Mike Trout. ... They have their own timeline.”
Acuna, who will turn 20 on Monday, was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year and followed that up by being named MVP in the Arizona Fall League, where he was one of the youngest players in the prospect-laden league.
He’ll compete for a spot in the Braves’ opening-day lineup, unless they decide to keep him in the minors a few weeks to assure an extra season of contractual control before free agency.
If the Braves trade right fielder Nick Markakis or trade or release Matt Kemp, who’s still owed $36 million by the Braves over the next two seasons, that would open a spot for Acuna, who can play good to exceptional defense at any of the three outfield positions and has played more right field than left.
(He’s played more center field than any other position, but the Braves have two-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte in center.)
Manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday at baseball’s annual Winter Meetings that Acuna looked ready a year ago, when the power-hitting speester shone like few others have when Acuna was brought over from minor league camp to play in an inordinate number of major league spring-training games, otherwise known as “fence jumping.”
Despite having no experience above low Single-A to that point of his career, Acuna hit .296 (8-for-27) with two doubles, a triple, a .387 OBP and .832 OPS in 13 major league spring-training games only a few months after his 19th birthday. Minor leaguers are usually sent over to serve as roster extras for spring-training games, often on the road, and most are lucky to get more than an at-bat or two in a few games.
“When they would send him over, I was like, if you want this kid to have a breather, don't send him because I'm playing him,” Snitker said. “He probably (would have) made our club out of spring training last year by fence-jumping. He's an exciting kid. It's going to be exciting to get him in our camp this year.
“Last year he came in as a very impressive young man -- I was most impressed about the adjustments he would make on the fly and (during) at-bats, and again, the kid's skill set defensively, what he brings offensively, the potential is going to be really good. We'll get him down there (at spring training), and he'll be part of the mix and see where he's at.”
Acuna started the 2017 season at high Single-A Florida and ended it two promotions later at Triple-A, and he was the rare player who actually improved his offensive stats at each stop as he moved up the organizational ladder. He hit a combined .326 with 60 extra-base hits (eight triples, 21 homers) and 44 stolen bases in 139 games (612 plate appearances), including .344 (76-for-221) with nine homers and a .940 OPS in 54 games as the youngest player in Triple-A.
When it comes to determining when young players are ready for the big leagues, Anthopoulos said, “I think their performance at the minor league level will tell you that. Now, there might be some things developmentally; your player-development staff will say, hey, look, the talent is there, but they need to work on their routines, there’s some things they need to work on defensively, maybe some things they need to work on. Maybe for a pitcher, holding guys on base, holding runners, that’s not tightened up yet, but the stuff’s great and they’re ready to go.
“Then you’re balancing out need – can you wait for the players, can you develop them a little bit more? (Or if) you’re ready to win, you need to just accelerate it. It’s a case-by-case (scenario).”
A lot of players aren’t ready for the majors until they are at least 24, 25 years old, but there are some exceptional ones who are ready much younger.
“For the most part, players will dictate it,” Anthopoulos said.