Ronald Acuna has been the Braves’ and arguably the major leagues’ best player this spring. On Monday he got sent down to the minor leagues.
The move was not unexpected despite his performance, and neither will be the inevitable criticism that Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos receives from some for having the dynamic 20-year-old phenom start the season at Triple-A Gwinnett instead of in left field at SunTrust Park for the big-league Braves -- a decision that many will view as largely if not entirely driven by the economics of baseball.
“That’s part of the game. You’re going to get criticized in these jobs no matter what you do,” Anthopoulos said after the announcement that Acuna was reassigned to minor league camp. “One way or the other, we have to do what feels right, what’s the right path and right development path for the player. In the long run, that’s what’s going to carry the day.”
Acuna had three hits Sunday after homering in each of his three previous games, and entered Monday ranked second in the majors in average (.432), on-base percentage (.519), slugging percentage (.727) and OPS (1.247). He led the Grapefruit League (teams that train in Florida) in each of those categories and didn’t play in Monday’s game, after which Acuna was told of his reassignment by Anthopoulos, assistant GM Perry Minasian and manager Brian Snitker.
Anthopoulos insisted it was for development purposes, that the team wants to make sure they do the right thing for the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball, a player many believe will soon become the next Braves superstar.
“He had a great spring,” Anthopoulos said. “The one thing we said was that we’d keep an open mind, but we did talk a lot about (how) he ran through the minor leagues last year. Just from a developmental standpoint, to go through three levels the way we did. The more we talked about it from an organizational standpoint, having more development time – no one’s ever been hurt by that. ...
“We feel like it’s probably best overall, from a philosophical standpoint, to get him more development time.”
Many industry insiders as well as fans will not be convinced it was done for any reason other than to assure the Braves of another full season of contractual control before free agency, something that most who follow the team closely had been predicting since before spring training began.
Even his overwhelming performance wasn’t enough to convince the Braves to change their thinking on Acuna’s immediate future.
The Braves also reassigned to minor league camp catcher Rob Brantly, outfielder Dustin Peterson, infielder Christian Colon and relief pitchers Josh Graham and Miguel Socolovich.
But the Acuna move overshadowed all else Monday.
Many around baseball will say that it was a sound decision, that it would have been irresponsible for the Braves to forgo an entire potential season of contractual control just so that Acuna could be on their opening day roster in a season in which no one predicts the still-rebuilding Braves to contend for the National League East title.
Anthopoulos said he knows some will criticize the Braves, who’ve had three consecutive seasons with at least 90 losses, by saying they’re not putting their best possible team on the field from Day 1 of the season.
“Sure, that’s fair,” he said. “And I think you could say the same thing (about 20-year-old pitching prospect Mike Soroka). Arguably from what I saw of Soroka that’s as good a young arm and makeup and command as I’ve seen. And you know what? You’re trying to balance our priority with what’s best for Ronald Acuna’s development, what’s best for Mike Soroka’s development, and ultimately we still have a responsibility to the Braves to put the best team out on the field.
“But the No. 1 priority is going to be the development of each player, because we want them when they’re up here to stay up here. We want them for long, healthy, productive careers, and hopefully to not have the yo-yo of going up and down.”
It means the Braves won’t unveil one of the most highly anticipated young talents in baseball during a six-game season-opening homestand that begins March 29. The earliest the Braves can bring Acuna up and still assure an extra (seventh) season of control before free agency would be April 13 at Wrigley Field in a series opener against the Cubs.
Coincidentally, the Cubs were criticized in 2015 for a similar situation in which they held back Kris Bryant, who had a similarly stunning spring as Acuna’s had. Bryant debuted on April 17, 2015 and went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year award.
The Braves could wait until an April 16 series opener against the Phillies at the start of the second homestand if they want Acuna’s debut to come at SunTrust Park. Or, they could keep him at Triple-A longer, though the pressure will undoubtedly increase to call him up if he performs at Triple-A as he did last season and as he’s played all spring.
“You don’t set time frames,” Anthopoulos said. “I know a lot gets made of that (date for the extra season of control). Right now it’s go down, play, get into a routine. He’s looked obviously very good. But get into the routine of playing every day, nine innings, the flow of the season, night games, all that kind of stuff. Just the day-to-day grind instead of two days in a row, five or six innings, off and so on.
“Just get into the flow, keep doing what he’s doing and he’ll find himself back here soon. Hopefully very soon.”
Anthopoulos, a former Blue Jays GM and Dodgers executive in his first season with the Braves, said he probably wouldn’t have bumped Acuna up twice last season in the minors and indicated he also probably wouldn’t have promoted Dansby Swanson from Double-A to the majors in August 2016 after less than one full season in the minors.
Swanson excelled in that late-season call-up but struggled mightily in his first full season in 2017, briefly getting sent to Triple-A in late July.
“One of the things I asked Dansby about when he first got (to spring training), was how did he feel about his development, timing and all that stuff,” Anthopoulos said. “He said, ‘Look, more reps wouldn’t hurt.’”
Anthopoulos pointed out how teams develop scouting reports on players in the major league season, unlike spring training. And he said a few times that having more development time can never hurt a player.
“For all these guys, at the big-league level there’s advance work, at spring training no one’s game-planning for you,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s not to say (Acuna) won’t make adjustments and be a great player; that’s what we’re optimistic that he’ll be. But the regular season and spring training, we all know that’s not the same. And there will be the routine and the flow of playing every day and people are gunning for you and preparing for you. Whereas now (in spring training) guys that are coming out of the bullpen, guys that are starting, they’re not necessarily – we certainly don’t give advance reports to our starters (at spring training). It’s going to be a little more to it obviously at this level when the time comes.”
Former Braves GM John Coppolella and former president of baseball operations John Hart twice promoted Acuna last season, from high-A to Double-A and finally to Triple-A. He played better at each level despite being the youngest player in Double-A and again in Triple-A, where he hit .344 with 25 extra-base hits (nine homers) and a .940 OPS in 54 games for Gwinnett.
He was named Baseball America’s minor league Player of the Year after hitting a combined .325 with a .374 OBP, .522 slugging percentage, 60 extra-base hits (21 homers) and 44 stolen bases in 139 games, then was the youngest-ever MVP of the Arizona Fall League after hitting .325 with seven homers and a 1.053 OPS in 23 games in a prospect league.
Acuna is a bona fide five-tool player, a superb athlete with what many scouts consider Gold Glove-caliber defensive skills at any of three outfield positions and an extremely strong throwing arm to go with his combination of speed, power and high-average and on-base skills.
“I thought he handled it exceptionally well,” Anthopoulos said of Acuna’s spring and learning he’d been sent down. “I haven’t gotten to know him very well, but I’ve been very impressed with the maturity level, the way he handles things. I can’t say enough good things about him, his maturity and how he’s handled himself across the spring.”