ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman has no recollection of Ronald Acuña Jr. or Mike Soroka when the three spent a day or two as teammates for the Rookie-level GCL Braves in 2015. But he now has reason to laugh when asked what he remembers from the brief Minor League rehab assignment that first put him in the company of these two young stars.
“I think I was there for 36 hours and then I was like, ‘All right, let’s go back to the big leagues,'” Freeman said. “I wish I could say I remember either one of them. I was there to just get my work in and get my at-bats. It’s funny how it works. Here we are four years later.”
Four years later, Freeman, Acuna and Soroka find themselves as the Braves’ representatives at the 2019 MLB All-Star Game. The latter two, who participated in the '17 Futures Game, are the first set of teammates under the age of 22 to be selected to the same All-Star team.
“I’m enjoying the experience and understanding that it’s one that you might not have ever again,” Acuna said. “These things don’t happen very often. Just to be able to come out here and see all of the great talent and enjoy it as much as I can. That is my goal.”
Being together at this year’s All-Star Game was not something these guys were envisioning on July 24, 2015, when the GCL Braves put a 17-year-old Acuna in the leadoff spot, two spots ahead of Freeman, who was recovering from a right wrist injury. But this one game they shared together provided a glimpse of the future. Acuna began an eight-run first against the GCL Yankees with a walk, then he scored on a single by Freeman, whose third-inning home run made an impression on Soroka.
“I remember him hitting an inside fastball on the back fields of the GCL. It looked like he was long with his swing, and then all the sudden, he’s out in front with an inside heater,” Soroka said. “That’s when I was like, 'Wow.' I didn’t realize at that point how good Freddie is. He’s incredible every day. He’ll burn you many different ways. He’s one of those guys where there’s no one set way to pitch to.”
While the past few months have introduced the baseball world to Soroka’s tremendous potential, the Braves have long known about his advanced baseball IQ. The Canadian right-hander was just 17 years old and a few weeks into his pro career when he began projecting Acuna as a power hitter.
“The thing I noticed was he was one of the guys whose bat speed I could hear from the dugout on those quiet GCL fields,” Soroka said. “That was kind of my wake up. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a professional bat.’ I didn’t realize it was that special then because I was new to pro ball. But as we got into it, and you could see the kinds of balls he was hitting, you saw him take off. At the time, he was this skinny kid who hadn’t been in the weight room.”
Like Soroka, Kolby Allard was taken in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft. The two close friends would often argue about their projections for Acuna. The former was projecting a 30-homer guy, while the latter was projecting the outfielder to be a speedy gap-to-gap hitter who might homer 20-25 times a year.
Allard’s perception changed two years ago, while playing for Double-A Mississippi.
“That night, he hit a changeup over the batter’s eye in Mississippi against a pitch he saw and paused before unloading on it,” Soroka said. “I was charting and I looked down in the dugout. Kolby looked up at me and he just kind of nodded and said, ‘Yeah,’ because that doesn’t happen.
“Really the whole way up, you knew he was special. But I don’t think anybody would have said he’s as special as he is now. When you looked back on it, we would all talk about his potential. But now you realize he has all the potential to be one of the greatest players in baseball for a long time.”
Acuna’s first introduction to Soroka occurred when the young pitcher faced a group of Minor Leaguers while pitching for Team Canada a couple months before the Braves drafted him.
“Honestly, I didn’t think much of it, because I didn’t know him personally and we hadn’t developed our friendship,” Acuna said through a translator. “But now to speak of him, I think he’s going to be a superstar. He’s obviously as good a pitcher as he is a person.”
Soroka and Acuna have no recollection of how they fared against each other during that exhibition game played during Spring Training.
“Ozzie [Albies] hit one in the gap off me,” Soroka said. “It was the only hit I gave up that day. I remember that, and I know he does too because he shows me the video all the time.”
As Freeman prepares for his fourth All-Star Game -- and his second straight as the National League’s starting first baseman -- he is looking forward to the chance to share the first experience that Soroka and Acuna will both have the opportunity to savor over the next few days.
“Acuna is starting and Mike isn’t just an All-Star, he’s a Cy Young and Rookie of the Year candidate,” Freeman said. “I think they’re going to fit right in. It’s pretty amazing what these guys are doing at such a young age in this game.”