We’ve been here before. Jeff Francoeur launched his career like he was shot from a circus cannon. Jason Heyward crushed home runs and windshields of parked cars behind the right-field wall in spring training. Dansby Swanson hit .302 in 38 games as a rookie.
We celebrated. We fawned. We let our imaginations build statues before there was a reason to even assume there were pedestals to put the statues on.
“He’s a brand,” Freddie Freeman said of Swanson last May.
By then, the Braves’ rookie shortstop, hometown boy, had been slapped on billboards and buses and put in commercials and honored with a bobblehead night (doll complete with dreamy, flowing hair). The Braves were desperate for a positive hook. They were a struggling bunch in the midst of a rebuild and moving into a new stadium.
So they milked the hell out of Swanson, probably to his detriment.
Here we are again.
Don’t make the same mistake.
All indications are that Ronald Acuna is the real thing. Anybody with a scout’s eye, a statistical spread sheet and a stop watch says it. Anybody who watched him run down a fly ball, single and round the bases from first to home, sparks flying off his shoes, on a Kurt Suzuki’s double in Monday’s exhibition would attest to his athleticism.
Chipper Jones, the Hall of Famer, recently dubbed Acuna, “as good a prospect as I’ve seen.”
Acuna might very well fulfill expectations. He’s the five-tool talent teams dream about. He’s a likeable kid who exudes confidence. If he takes off, the Braves can make something of this season.
It’s just not the responsibility you want to put on a 20-year-old.
“He knows he’s good, but he’s going to go through his ups and downs,” Freeman said. “You don’t need to put him on billboards when he’s rolling into the field and he has zero days in the big leagues. Let him become Ronald Acuna first. Maybe in year two you can put all the billboards up.”
Acuna said he isn’t fazed by the attention. He said through an interpreter, “I’ve always had confidence in myself. I do that just by focusing on my goals. I just love playing this game.”
He will attack his career aggressively. The Braves need to be more guarded. If it’s clear he’s good enough to make the roster out of spring training, great. There’s a corner outfield spot for him. If not, there’s no rush. Start him in Gwinnett and call him up later. Keep the promotional train parked.
We’ll never know the extent to which Swanson was affected by the promotions and pressures of playing at home, but it couldn’t have helped. Maybe the marketing half of the organization learned something. The Braves have scheduled seven bobblehead giveaway nights and none depict Acuna.
It’s easy to say why he has excited everybody. He made the remarkable jump from High-A (Florida, .287) to Double-A (Mississippi, .326) to Triple-A (Gwinnett, .344) in one season. Yes, one. But we are too quick in sports to christen the next superhero.
“If you’re not successful right out of the gate, everybody thinks you’re a failure,” Nick Markakis said. “But that’s the baseball world we live in these days. You wish they would let them develop and be who they are before they start doing all that (promotion).”
Swanson can relate to Acuna’s situation but is unsure how much he can help.
“It’s so funny, we as humans have so much trouble learning from other people’s success or failures,” Swanson said. “It’s like, ‘I’m trying to help you with this now.’ But sometimes you just have to go through it.”
Acuna’s rapid rise is even more surprising when you consider he never was projected to be a top prospect.
“I wasn’t even a prospect,” Acuna said. “Nobody knew who I was. Some were saying I was too small or I don’t have the size or the strength. I don’t put too much thought into it now. I’m here.”
Rolando Petit saw something. Petit, the Braves’ assistant director of international operations under former general manager Frank Wren, scouted Acuna in La Sabana, a small village on the north coast of Venezuela and was impressed. The Braves signed the undrafted free agent in 2014 to a $100,000 bonus (relative nickels).
Three years later, everybody knew who Ronald Acuna was.
“Even from a young age I expected myself to become something,” Acuna said. “But I never expected it this quickly.”
He comes from a family of athletes. His father, Ron Sr., and grandfather played minor league baseball. His uncles played basketball. His mother, Leonelis, is tall and athletic. Ron Sr. was an outfielder in the minor leagues for eight seasons (1999-2006) and then in Venezuela.
“I was fortunate as a young man to watch my father play,” said Acuna, who will go by “Acuna Jr.” this season. “That’s what motivated me to get into baseball. My father was my favorite player. I wanted to grow up and be like him.”
His goal is to establish himself in the majors, then bring his family here from Venezuela. And if he doesn’t make the Braves out of camp?
“There would be a little disappointment, but even if I go to the minors leagues I’ll keep working to make it back,” he said.
He’s 20. There’s no rush.
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