- By David O'Brien The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Braves manager Brian Snitker has seen enough of Ronald Acuna, in instructional league and two spring trainings, to know how special the kid is.
Like other team officials, Snitker isn’t at all concerned by Acuna’s 4-for-29 start to the season at Triple-A Gwinnett including 10 strikeouts and three walks.
But the Braves also felt no urgency to bring him to the major leagues, particularly with the Braves getting solid production from temporary left fielder Preston Tucker, who hit another three-run homer Friday in a 4-0 win against the Cubs to give him three homers and a team-high 12 RBIs.
“Ryan (Flaherty) and Preston have been doing a fantastic job for us the first two weeks,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman said, referring Tucker and Flaherty, the veteran utility man filling in at third base with Johan Camargo out. “They’ve really been winning ballgames pretty much by themselves out there and it’s been huge for us.”
Flaherty had three hits Friday and has a .366 average and .458 OBP.
Snitker gets reports every day from Triple-A manager Damon Berryhill, who said to reporters about Acuna: “I think he’s pressing a little bit. Chasing out of the zone, which is unusual for him. But I’m not overly concerned. It’s been a slow start for basically this whole league. The first week we played was brutal weather everywhere.”
Acuna, the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball, had played only seven games in 2-1/2 weeks – including the Braves vs. Future Stars game March 27 -- because of a gap this year between the end of spring training and start of the Triple-A season April 6. Gwinnett opened on the road in in chilly and sometimes wet conditions and had one game rained out.
Camargo, who’s with Gwinnett on an injury-rehab assignment, also started slowly, but has hit three homers in his past three games. He’s 4-for-24 with three homers, two walks and eight strikeouts in six rehab games, with no firm timetable yet for coming off the disabled list.
“I think the biggest thing with all those guys was that layoff,” Snitker said. “They played that Futures Game and didn’t play again for what, eight or nine days after that? Just not real conducive to keeping things going. When you’re in that competitive mode playing teams, then all of a sudden you play pick-up games again. It just wasn’t conducive to a lot of guys getting off the mat really quick.
“I think more than pressing it’s probably just getting back into the swing of things. And then there, too, they got started and the weather was bad, got rained out, just hasn’t been a good mix of consistency yet.”
It’s only a matter of time before Acuna takes over in left field for the Braves, though it’ll be a little longer than originally anticipated or than most Braves fans hoped. Saturday is the day that most had targeted, since that’s the earliest Acuna could be brought up and still guarantee the Braves another full season of contractual control before he’s potentially elgible for free agency in seven instead of six years.
At the time that Acuna was sent down to minor league camp during spring training in mid-March, the phenom led the Grapefruit League and ranked second in the majors in average (.432), on-base percentage (.519), slugging percentage (.727) and OPS (1.247). He also led the Braves in home runs (four) and stolen bases (four) and was tied for the team lead in RBIs (11) and runs (eight).
The Braves insisted Acuna was being sent down for general development after being moved so quickly through three minor league levels in 2017 by the previous front-office regime. But the widely held view around baseball was the Braves sent him down for one reason: to control his service time so the team is assured an extra season of contractual control before he could be eligible for free agency.
Now, with his slow start coupled with the work the Braves have gotten from Tucker during the team’s encouraging surprising start, the Braves feel no urgency to bring up Acuna until he gets his offense clicking again.
Tucker’s three-run homer in the fifth inning Friday gave the Braves a 4-0 lead in the series opener at Wrigley Field.
No one believes it will take long for Acuna to start hitting, since he’s been known for starting slowly but catching fire in a hurry – he did it last season in Single-A ball and did it at the outset of spring training.
Whether the Braves have him make his debut during a seven-game homestand that begins Monday remains to be seen, but there’s obviously a possibility he’ll be up as soon as he starts to consistently look more like himself at the plate.
With Camargo, the Braves also see no urgency to activate him given the performance of fill-in Flaherty.
“Especially with Camargo, as long as he’s healthy, we’re not pushed to get him back,” Snitker said. “Unless something happens, we can allow him to keep getting the game at-bats. The good thing is he’s healthy and playing every day and getting the at-bats. If something happened and we needed to bring him back tomorrow, we could. There wouldn’t be any reservations. It’s just a matter of we’re not forced to rush him back.”