5 takeaways from Acuña's season-ending injury

May 28th, 2024

The news hit like a punch to the gut Sunday evening: Braves star , the defending National League MVP, will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Acuña is a transcendent player who has had buzzard’s luck over the last five years. But the misfortune isn’t just his: There aren’t many players more fun to watch than Acuña -- and now, none of us get to do so until 2025. It just stinks.

A player like Acuña isn’t taken off the board without some serious ramifications, not just for him but for his team and the rest of baseball. Here are five next-morning takeaways from Acuña’s injury.

Some might say the NL East race is over, but that doesn’t mean Atlanta’s season is
If we’re being honest, the Phillies were already in the process of putting some serious distance between themselves and the Braves. Their division lead is up to six games heading into Memorial Day -- the largest lead in any division in baseball, if you can believe that. And while the Phillies have a much tougher schedule over the next month than anything they’ve faced up to this point, plucking Acuña out of the Braves' lineup clears the path for the Phillies considerably. (One clear advantage: The Phillies still have 10 games against the Braves, none of which will feature Acuña.)

The Phillies have had everything working so far -- from a veteran lineup that has been excellent, even without an injured Trea Turner or an effective Nick Castellanos, to a rotation that has been the best in baseball by a rather wide margin. It was going to be tough sledding for the Braves to keep up with the Phillies with Acuña. Without him, the Phillies have to like their chances.

Not that missing out on the division title should make the Braves think all is lost; after all, they won this division by 14 games last season -- and that didn’t stop them from being unceremoniously knocked out by the Phillies in the NL Division Series.

The Braves may be in the outfield market again
One of the worst aspects of Acuña being out for the year is, of course, we have been through this before. In 2021, the Braves lost Acuña after he tore the ACL in his right knee. As is already happening in the wake of this latest injury, many immediately wrote off the Braves’ chances that year. But one person who didn’t was Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who brought in all kinds of outfield reinforcements -- from Adam Duvall to master of pearls Joc Pederson to that season's NL Championship Series MVP Eddie Rosario to 2021 World Series MVP Jorge Soler. That Voltron of outfielders launched the Braves to their first title since 1995. The question is whether or not there’s the inventory for Anthopoulos to pull such a coup again.

The best outfielder likely to be on the market is probably Tommy Pham of the White Sox, though it’s also possible the Angels will shop Jo Adell. If the Braves were feeling risky, they could even look into Pham's teammate, Luis Robert, who is currently on the IL. There are also internal options, from Duvall (who re-signed for his third stint with Atlanta in March) to Minor Leaguers like J.P. Martínez or Forrest Wall, who was on Atlanta's Opening Day roster and has been terrific at Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves have proven they can replace Acuña when they have to … and maybe even win a World Series while doing so.

Austin Riley is coming back just in time
The All-Star Braves third baseman has been out since May 12 with an intercostal strain, but he’s scheduled to return Monday against the Nationals. Riley, once thought of as a slugger without much plate discipline, has turned himself into a star. Did you realize he’s the only player in the NL to finish in the Top 10 in MVP voting each of the past three seasons? He was off to a somewhat slow start -- for him -- before going down with the injury, but he appears to be back on track and ready to go.

Riley is, in many ways, indicative of the success the Braves have had of late, in that he rarely gets injured; he played 160 games in 2021, plus 159 in '22 and '23. That has obviously blown up now. The Braves have a deep lineup even without Acuña, but they need Riley’s thump in the middle of the order, to go along with the resurgent Marcell Ozuna, more than ever. You can’t replace Acuña. But having Riley return the day Acuña goes down is at least some helpful kismet.

You can’t help but wonder what we’ve already lost with Acuña
MLB.com’s Mike Petriello included Acuña alongside Juan Soto in his, “it’s not too soon to call them legends” category of potential Hall of Famers earlier this year. But that included the caveat that that was “barring serious injury.” Well, we now have another serious injury for Acuña. Look at the last five years for Acuña, one of the most riveting talents we’ve seen in baseball in a long time:

2020: Covid-19 truncated season
2021: Torn ACL in right knee
2022: Return from ACL, with limited effectiveness due to recovery from the injury
2023: MVP and historic 41-homer, 73-steal season
2024: Torn ACL in left knee

After what we saw from Acuña in 2022, when he was tentative playing on his surgically repaired right knee before coming back with a vengeance in 2023, it is not unreasonable to think we might not see the Acuña we know and love until … 2026? By that point, he’ll be 29 -- getting set to veer into his 30s, right when players with his speed start to lose a step or two. This is not to say Acuña will not be an excellent player again: He’s Ronald Acuña Jr., after all. But the peak Acuña? The one who could do everything better than almost anyone else could do anything? Let’s hope we all get to see that player again.

The whole baseball community will miss Acuña
From the very first second we saw Acuña in the Majors in his 2018 NL Rookie of the Year season, we knew we were seeing something special -- the sort of player you can build not just a whole team around, but a whole league. We have seen flashes -- and in 2023, he put it all together the way we dreamed could happen. Acuña is one of those players who reminds you what the sport itself is capable of, how a person can seemingly have been born specifically to play baseball.

Any kid who watches Acuña wants to be him, and we'll all look forward to dreaming along with him again soon.