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If Acuna excels, Braves could accelerate path

All eyes will be on Atlanta's top prospect at Spring Training
MLB.com @mlbbowman

ATLANTA -- It seems whenever Braves manager Brian Snitker has been asked about Ronald Acuna, he has hearkened back to around this time last year, when he was telling the team's player development staff that it better not have the teenage outfielder serve as a roster addition for Grapefruit League games if it didn't truly want him to play.

After Snitker took advantage of multiple opportunities to see Acuna face big leaguers and advanced Minor Leaguers in preseason games last year, the five-tool phenom commanded the attention of the baseball world and established himself as one of the game's top talents. He ranks second on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list.

ATLANTA -- It seems whenever Braves manager Brian Snitker has been asked about Ronald Acuna, he has hearkened back to around this time last year, when he was telling the team's player development staff that it better not have the teenage outfielder serve as a roster addition for Grapefruit League games if it didn't truly want him to play.

After Snitker took advantage of multiple opportunities to see Acuna face big leaguers and advanced Minor Leaguers in preseason games last year, the five-tool phenom commanded the attention of the baseball world and established himself as one of the game's top talents. He ranks second on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list.

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"If you want to get right down to it, he probably could have made our team last year as a fence jumper," Snitker said, using a term often applied to those players brought over from Minor League camp to serve as extra players for Grapefruit League games.

All eyes will be on Acuna when Spring Training opens next week and he participates in big league camp for the first time. The 20-year-old outfielder knows it's in the Braves' long-term interest to secure an extra season of control by having him start the regular season with Triple-A Gwinnett, but that knowledge won't stop him from trying to making the decision harder or at least intensifying the hype that will surround him once he is given a spot on Atlanta's roster.

Video: Ronald Acuna is named the No. 2 prospect in 2018

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"It's going to be even more fun this year to have him in camp with us every day and to see what the kid brings," Snitker said. "He's a very talented young man. Just from watching this kid last year, you could tell he was special. He's got a skill set that is really good. It's going to be exciting to get him out there and watch him go.

"We'll let Spring Training play out and see where he's at. He's probably going to make it hard on us."

If Acuna were to be placed on Atlanta's Opening Day roster and never sent back to the Minors, he would be eligible for free agency at the conclusion of the 2023 season. If the Braves were to keep him at the Triple-A level for at least the first couple of weeks of this upcoming season, they could delay his first possible entry into free agency until '24.

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"Hopefully, [Acuna] can be the next Aaron Judge, where he comes in and makes an impact right away," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "I've heard such amazing things about him. It's going to be good. Hopefully, he can push his way in a lot quicker [than expected]."

When Freeman recently spoke about Acuna, he referred to him as "you know who" and described him as the guy capable of providing the Braves the big right-handed bat that the lineup lacks. This is high praise for a young prospect, who had played a total of 40 regular-season games at the Class A Minor League level before coming to Spring Training last year.

Acuna's star began to rise as he participated in instructional league games following the 2015 season. He was still a couple months shy of his 18th birthday, but he left quite an impression on former Atlanta managers Fredi Gonzalez and Bobby Cox, who both returned to Atlanta praising the potential of this prospect they had just seen for the first time.

Video: Ronald Acuna discusses being a top prospect

After missing a majority of the 2016 season with a wrist injury, Acuna soared through Atlanta's system last year, starting with Class A Advanced Florida and ending with Gwinnett. He hit .325 with 21 home runs, 44 stolen bases and an .896 OPS in 139 games at three levels.

Providing further reason to believe in his ability to meet the challenges presented at the next level, Acuna's numbers continued to improve as the summer elapsed. He had an .814 OPS over 126 plate appearances for Florida and a .895 OPS over 243 PA with Mississippi. To cap off his memorable year, he hit .344 with a .980 OPS over 243 PA with Gwinnett.

"[Acuna] came over to play in some Spring Training games last year, and I was already out of the game, so I haven't had a chance to see him," Freeman said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do."

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

Atlanta Braves, Ronald Acuna