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It’s checkers vs. chess: Braves made right move with Acuna


 

As much as I would’ve liked to see Ronald Acuna have his Jason Heyward-type of opening-day moment March 29 against the Phillies at SunTrust Park, and receive a thunderous ovation from the home crowd as his major league debut coincided with the dawn of a new season, the Braves and general manager Alex Anthopoulos did the right thing Monday when they sent their terrific prospect to the minors.

Despite Acuna clearly showing he’s ready for the majors, despite their being no obvious flaw whatsoever in any part of his game, despite him being the best player on the team at spring training and therefore giving the Braves a better chance to win when he’s on the field, they did the right thing when they reassigned Acuna to minor league camp just over a week before opening day.

Because if they didn’t send Acuna to the minors, Anthopoulos would’ve effectively been playing checkers while other GMs are playing chess. And he’s not that guy. At all. He’s smart, bold and thick-skinned, from what I’ve seen so far.

Simply put, whether you like the service-time rule or not – and really, could anyone other than a mathematician, accountant or lawyer possibly like it – to simply ignore it would be borderline irresponsible for a baseball general manager. 

Scratch that, it wouldn’t even be borderline, it would be irresponsible.

That is, unless you’re a GM who’s extremely confident that you’re going to be able to sign the prospect in question to a multi-year deal before free agency. Or you’re just not sold on said prospect being a must-keep type of long-term asset or eventual trade chip, much less on him being a franchise-cornerstone type of talent. Neither applies in this case.

If you do believe, like so many others who’ve observed or scouted and rated Acuna as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, and like some (including myself) who think he’s a generational-level talent, then it makes no sense to put Acuna on the opening-day roster rather than simply keep him at Triple-A until at least April 14 and assuring your team of having an entire extra season of contractual control.

Those are the service-time rules. To just ignore them because a percentage of the fan base wants badly to see him play on opening day, or because some folks have tickets during the six-game opening homestand, or because some want you to use the same “play the best players regardless” philosophy they apply to all such situations – you know, the people who insist roster decisions should be made in a vacuum, based solely on most-recent performance and regardless of 40-man roster rules, minor-league options, opt-out clauses, guaranteed money owed to a player, or players’ track records, intangibles or experience, etc. – to ignore the existence of said rules and make the feel-good decision that suits a vocal segment of the fan base would be simplistic and shortsighted.

It was one thing for the Braves to have Heyward, the  Braves’ last No. 1-rated prospect whose arrival was as anticipated and hyped as Acuna’s, on the 2010 opening-day roster. Bobby Cox had already announced it would be his final season as manager, the Braves expected to contend for the division title (they would win the wild card), and they had no obvious other candidates to handle right field for a couple of weeks at the beginning of the season. The argument could be made that it made sense to have Heyward start the season in the big leagues, that two or three wins might make a difference in a playoff berth, and that his presence would be riveting to begin Cox’s final season, given all the buzz that the homegrown Heyward had created. 

And sure enough, having Heyward on hand to catch a ceremonial first pitch on opening day from Hank Aaron – what many of us thought at the time was an almost literal passing of the torch to the next great Brave – and then homering in his first at-bat was chill-inducing and got the season rolling. That was a special day at the ballpark.

But this is another thing. 

The Braves are coming off three consecutive 90-loss seasons and have begun moving the ship forward. The future is bright, as we’ve been reminded watching so many top young players and elite-level prospects on display for much of spring training. 

But the rebuilding project isn’t over just yet, the Braves are still a year away from potentially being a strong contender – most players and team officials know this to be true, whether they say it in as many words publicly. 

And while this can be a big season, a transitional year back to perennial-contender status, no one expects the Braves to unseat the Nationals to win the division. And to win a wild-card berth, it will take a lot of things going the Braves’ way and several other teams falling on their faces, in my opinion.

So even though I think this team can flirt with .500 and possibly even finish a game or two above if all goes well, the fact is this almost certainly isn’t a 90-win team, and sacrificing an entire potential year of contractual control with Acuna to see him play opening day – it’s likely to be a sellout crowd regardless – or based on the argument that Acuna might help the Braves win an extra game or two, well, that just doesn’t make much sense. Not for the long-term health of the franchise and its competitiveness.

Put another way, would you rather see Acuna at age 20 for those 13 games at the start of a non-playoff season or have an extra season of control when he’s at his peak at 27 and the Braves expect to be well into their next era of being consistent pennant contenders?

And yes, I’m assuming the Braves are going to call up Acuna on April 14, or shortly thereafter. (They could wait till April 16 if they’d prefer to have him debut at home instead of Wrigley Field, but it might make more sense to debut on the road and play a full series before making his home debut.)

And getting back to what I said about a GM being certain he could sign the player to a long-term deal well before free agency. Yes, the Braves did it with Freddie Freeman. And with Julio Teheran. And with Andrelton Simmons, who they then made a big mistake (in my opinion) in trading away.

But because they did it with Freeman doesn’t at all mean they could do it with Acuna, or even indicate they’d have a good chance to pull it off with Acuna. Because trust me, this is a special talent. Freeman was, too. And is. Freddie has blossomed into one of the top 10 overall hitters in baseball, as I see it. But Acuna, as Chipper Jones put it, can be a superstar akin to a Bryce Harper or even a Mike Trout within a few years. Hey, Chipper said it, not me, and Chipper knows a hell of a lot more about baseball than, me, you or probably just about anyone else we know.

So imagine you are Acuna’s agent. You have undoubtedly read all the prospect ratings and reviews and proclamations about his extraordinary talent, and see what he’s done in his first major league camp. So what if he comes up to the majors and continues doing exactly what he’s done after every other promotion – get even better than he was at the level below?

What if he’s the NL Rookie of the Year? No one would be surprised whatsoever. What if he’s an MVP candidate within a few years or even sooner? Honestly, no one I know who’s seen him play multiple games would be surprised if he’s an NL MVP, or at least top-three in the voting, before he turns 23.

So what if it unfolds as we think it could. If he’s as best-case-scenario great as we think he can be? And what if Harper (or Manny Machado, or anyone) gets a $400 million contract next winter? What if the free-agent market price for superstars continues to rise, as it has for years?

What if – stay with me now, just what if – Acuna is a couple of All-Star seasons and top-five MVP seasons into his career and the Braves try to sign him to a long-term deal and his agent says, yeah, we’ll do it. For $500 million.

I mean, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, not at all beyond it, that Acuna could command one of the largest contracts in baseball history before long. 

And the Braves, as much as we all were led to believe payrolls would rise along with revenues in the new ballpark, have so far not shown an inclination toward increasing payroll anytime soon to the level it would presumably require to accommodate the largest salary in the game, or one of the largest.

Could they increase it in the next few years and be able to handle a steadily increasing salary that might start at $10 million and rise to $40 million in the latter years of the deal? (I’m just spitballing here, folks, grant me some latitude.) Sure, that could happen. But I’m just saying, it’s hardly guaranteed that it would, that they would eventually be willing to make a perhaps historically high offer to a player still multiple years away from free agency.

And here’s where we get back to the contractual control. Not only would it become crucial to know you could at least afford to keep Acuna in his arbitration years, have him for five or six seasons, or even for a seventh season before free agency if you were a World Series contender and wanted to keep him for a run at a ring, it could also be crucial having that extra year if you were ever – I know, God forbid – compelled to trade him because the team decided it couldn’t afford to keep him. 

Things happen. Owners and GMs change. Payrolls loosen or tighten. Some officials view things differently than predecessors, etc.

So if that transpired, and if someday you, as a team, just decided you couldn’t pay the price it would take to keep Acuna on a long-term massive contract, then imagine how much more value that one of the potentially top two or three players in the game would have with an extra season of contractual control. Imagine you had to trade him for whatever reason in July of his sixth season, say your team was beset by injuries and 20 games out and blah blah blah, and a contender came calling with staggering trade offer for Acuna. Imagine how much more they would offer if he had 1-1/2 seasons of control left instead of a half-season.

Again, it’s checkers vs. chess, folks. 

As much as we’d all like to see Acuna on opening day at SunTrust Park, you want your savvy GM to be playing chess with the rest of the smartest guys running teams. Not playing checkers and making a move to make a segment of the fan base feel good at the first homestand. Especially not when it involves such a hugely important talent as Acuna.

Here’s a classic from Dr. John, because very soon Ronald Acuna is going to be at the right place at the right time.

“RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME” by Dr. John

I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time
I'd of said the right thing
But I must have used the wrong line
I been in the right trip
But I must have used the wrong car
My head was in a bad place
And I'm wondering what it's good for

I been the right place
But it must have been the wrong time
My head was in a place
But I'm having such a good time
I been running trying to get hung up in my mind
Got to give myself a little talking to this time

Just need a little brain salad surgery
Got to cure this insecurity
I been in the wrong place
But it must have been the right time
I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong song
I been in the right vein
But it seems like the wrong arm
I been in the right world
But it seems wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong

Slipping, dodging ,sneaking
Creeping hiding out down the street
See me life shaking with every who I meet
Refried confusion is making itself clear
Wonder which way do I go to get on out of here

I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time
I'd have said the right thing
But I must have used the wrong line
I'd a took the right road
But I must have took a wrong turn
Would have made the right move
But I made it at the wrong time
I been on the right road
But I must have used the wrong car
My head was in a good place
And I wonder what it's bad for


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About the Author

David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.