It’s Wednesday afternoon, here in a town whose name is such a handy literary device since the topic is minor league baseball and its search for the rare and precious.
They are midway through the ritual of batting practice, the home team yielding the field to the visiting Biloxi Shuckers. Mississippi Braves manager Luis Salazar calls over to his counterpart across the way.
Come here. Come tell this visitor from Atlanta what you see in our guy Acuna. Testify.
Biloxi manager Mike Guerrero obliges. “Best player I’ve seen in 23 years in the minor leagues,” he says. “The next coming of (former Houston phenom) Cesar Cedeno.”
That’s one name Salazar already had employed as a template for the Braves young, raw outfielder, Ronald Acuna. Another was someone more familiar to the Atlanta following: Andruw Jones.
When a man has given everything to baseball — and Salazar certainly has done that, even contributing an eye after being struck in the face by a Brian McCann foul ball in the spring of 2011 — he can get excited when the game repays him with a promise like this.
You watch. This one is special. All the tools. The intangibles, too. “Everybody we play, the other managers talk about him, they say he won’t be here long. He’s going to be gone any time now. They say they haven’t seen a player like him in a long time. I agree,” Salazar said.
There are no dead certainties here on the research and development side of baseball. The well-founded suspicions, though, are that the Braves have something portentous going on in the minors, which is nice since the news on the major league front has been so … ehhhh. Volcanologists would liken it to an impending eruption, but then they’re scientists, not scouts.
For instance, the Braves have the three youngest players in the Double-A Southern League, Acuna being among a trio of 19-year-olds on the Mississippi roster. No one else in the 10-team league — from the Montgomery Biscuits to the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp — fields anyone younger than 20. A couple of their competitors go no younger than 23.
All three of those youths are among the seven Mississippi Braves just named to the Southern League’s All Star team. Heady times here on the fringe of the Mississippi state capital, Jackson.
How unusual is it to have three players still technically in their teens in this no-joke league (never mind the goofy team names, those were marketing department decisions)?
“Super unusual,” Jonathan Schuerholz said. He’s the next-gen personnel guy, the son of the architect of the Braves’ glory days, who as assistant director of player development tends the prospects now. He happened to be on-site this week inspecting Pearl’s riches.
“You look at the ability and ask yourself, what level can they play at? We thought these guys were special young men that we could push. And we are doing it,” Schuerholz said.
“Even if there is some learning curve and some bumps along the way — that’s expected. Knowing who they are and what their disposition is, we thought even if they have a couple hiccups they’re going to be able to get through it just fine.”
In the grips of a fourth consecutive season witnessing their major leaguers on the wrong side of .500, Braves fans might prefer the pushing be accelerated even more. But their schedule does not always take reality into account.
The other two 19-year-old M-Braves are, of course, pitchers. Starters, both. Aren’t all the other Braves prospects pitchers? They have an almost survivalist mentality about stockpiling arms.
Their names: Mike Soroka (7-3, 2.73 ERA). And Kolby Allard (4-3, 2.87 ERA). Devoted Braves fans have heard of them, and might even hope to name their children or their dogs after them one day. There is that kind of weight resting on the minor league system these days.
Let’s look at the last week in Mississippi Braves baseball and consider the give and take of 19-year-olds at play.
On Wednesday night against the Shuckers, Acuna brought that big, violent swing of his to heel and singled the other way to drive in the first two runs of the night for Mississippi. He was 2-for-5, and was hitting .367 with a .989 OPS after being called up May 9 from the Florida State League.
Two nights earlier, Soroka threw eight scoreless innings at the Shuckers, giving up just three hits and striking out nine. “Probably the most complete outing of my life,” he said. “I felt all my pitches were there when I wanted them, the command was there. I think I threw 20 off-speed pitches and only four of them were balls. I was filling it up with every pitch I had.”
Tuesday was not as good for Allard, whose control abandoned him. He walked three of the first four hitters he faced, and was out of the game after three innings having thrown 79 pitches while giving up three runs. “I got off to a good start this year. The last couple outings I haven’t thrown as great as I wish I could have. There is a lot of room for improvement,” Allard said.
They are three players from three different nations, Acuna from La Guaira, Venezuela, Soroka from Calgary, Alberta, and Allard from that oddball republic of California (San Clemente). Thrown together in a place foreign to them all — Mississippi — they at least seem bound by one trait.
“You talk to them, you don’t feel like you’re talking to a 19-year-old,” Schuerholz said. “The baseball acumen of these guys is unusual. You feel like you’re talking to a seasoned veteran who has been around the game a long time.”
(Conversations with Acuna can be limited, as is his English. But he evinces some level-headedness, as translated by Salazar, when asked how he likes being compared with the likes of Jones and Cedeno. “It’s an honor people compare me to those kinds of legends. It’s an honor to be in that category.”)
The secret, it seems, is to not let anyone see you as young. “Kolby and I and Acuna have always played older competition,” Soroka said. “That’s the way it’s been since I was 16 and made the Canadian Junior National Team. I was playing against what would have been 18- to 20-year-olds in the instructional leagues.
“Now, I don’t really feel too young. I felt overmatched back then. But now you really don’t think age is a factor, it’s just a number.” Aren’t old people supposed to be the ones who take cover behind that thought?
As for the two pitchers, they have much more than a craft in common. Allard and Soroka were born within nine days of each other in 1997. They were both taken in the first round by the Braves in 2015, Allard with the 14th pick, Soroka 14 picks later. They have come up together through the ranks, and room together here at Double-A.
They have the benefit of each other’s counsel and the constant push of friendly competition.
No one wants to stay in Mississippi. It’s as if every car in the players’ lot here is idling and pointed east for the six-hour drive to either Triple-A Gwinnett or, better yet, the Cobb Cloverleaf.
There is an urgency about moving on, a top priority given the level of talent. M-Braves GM Steve DeSalvo, who has been a Double-A exec since this team’s days in Greenville, S.C., sounded a warning about that to his season-ticket holders during a Tuesday lunch. “We reminded them this is a time you need to make sure you come out because this is one of those years a guy will be here today and then gone,” he said.
Injuries can happen. Returns can diminish. Teams can bargain their prospects here and there. Projecting what will happen to a Double-A hotshot, especially one so young, is risky. Projecting what might happen is a baseball staple.
Imagine the making of a great buddy movie, starring Allard and Soroka, on the SunTrust mound.
“We could be a formidable one-two punch. That sounds like a lot of fun to me,” Allard said.
Imagine a flashy outfielder giving life to his Double-A manager’s unflinching endorsement. “(Acuna) is going to make it quick to the big leagues,” Salazar said.
“He’s learning quick. In a year or two this kid is going to be a superstar. No doubt.”
Who knows what pearls await?
BY THE NUMBERS
How the teenage Mississippi Braves were faring as of Thursday:
Ronald Acuna, OF: 28 games, 109 AB, .367 batting average, 4 home runs, 20 RBIs, .989 OPS, 14 stolen bases.
Mike Soroka, SP: 11 starts, 7-3, 2.73 ERA, 60 strikeouts, 15 walks, .209 opponents’ batting average, 1.02 WHIP.
Kolby Allard, SP: 12 starts, 4-3, 2.87 ERA, 51 strikeouts, 23 walks, .238 opponents’ batting average, 1.28 WHIP.