Cristian Pache might be next Braves star, but they’re willing to wait

Pache remained on the ground for a moment. He stayed in the game, drawing a walk and scoring a run in the ensuing frame. The shock from slamming into the border was only a temporary suppressor.

Peoria defeated Surprise 4-2 on that Nov. 9. The Javelinas contain the Braves’ Arizona Fall League participants, among them Pache, who might be the franchise’s next big thing.

“All my work is paying off right now,” Pache said through teammate interpreter and Braves prospect Izzy Wilson. “Opening new eyes in the fall league is something I’m thankful for. I’m enjoying seeing so much talent together and learning from guys who’ve played at higher levels than me, getting to know my new teammates and making adjustments here.”

After a somewhat slow start, Pache earned AFL All-Star honors. He’s hitting .277/.315/.361 with five extra-base hits, nine RBIs and 13 runs scored. His defense has spectators raving – some opine he’s the best defender in the Braves’ system, if not the entire minors.

It’s the second consecutive year that a Braves outfielder has drawn attention in the desert. The great Ronald Acuna, National League rookie of the year, won AFL MVP last season.

Comparing Acuna and Pache, who turns 20 on Nov. 19, isn’t a fair proposition. Scouts have declared Pache a potential five-tool player like Acuna, but the offense simply isn’t that far along yet. 

Yes, Pache is a top-two position prospect in the system and unquestionably will lead the list when third baseman Austin Riley moves up, but Acuna was a rarity.

Belief that Pache could crack the majors in 2019 is optimistic. His defense is stellar, projecting as gold-glove caliber in center, but the offense needs time to catch up. 

“He’s going to need at-bats,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “He’ll tell us when. His performance will dictate that. Just getting where he did by the end of the year (Double-A) was a great achievement. But he’s still going to need time.”

Pache is listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, a frame he’ll continue filling out. Building strength is an emphasis of his offseason, and his physical development will provide clarity as to his power potential.

After zero homers in 2017, he hit eight in 2018. Pache has yet to homer in the AFL, but there’s still reason to expect his power to grow.

“Hitting-wise, I’m working on my strike zone, being better at selecting pitches,” Pache said. “I’m also working on my body, trying to get stronger.”

He flashed in a one-game sample size before opening day, hitting two home runs in last season’s Future Stars exhibition at SunTrust Park. Both shots came off Sean Newcomb, who went on to pitch exceptionally in the first half of the season.

It’s not hard to envision Acuna and Pache patrolling the outfield for years to come. The Braves are going to part with prospects, but file Pache in the “unlikely” category. Instead the franchise can dip into its pitching wealth to add immediate difference makers.

The Braves were rewarded for the easy decision of clinging to Acuna. They could experience a comparable outcome by retaining Pache.

“It’s been good getting to know him,” Pache said of Acuna. “We met at instructional league. It’s a great feeling being with him in the clubhouse, and now seeing him do what he does in the big leagues.”

Pache likely will begin the 2019 season at Double-A Mississippi, and while the team is hesitant to tag a timeline for him, early success could force his way into their plans sooner than anticipated.

“That’d be great,” Anthopoulos said of beliefs that Pache can be a five-tool player. “He’s so young. He’s got so much raw talent, he went from zero to eight (home runs in 2017 to 2018).” 

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