Acuña arrives at camp early ready to show 'unfathomable' talent

Further removed from a torn ACL, Braves slugger poised to rediscover All-Star form

February 14th, 2023

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- As  spoke to media members at Braves Fest on Jan. 21, it was clear he was really looking forward to the chance to prove he is healthy and capable of once again consistently creating jaw-dropping moments on a baseball field.

“I’m beyond excited and happy,” a smiling Acuña said through an interpreter. “I think my face says it all. I feel like it’s been two years to this point since I felt completely healthy. So, I’m really excited.”

How excited? Well, Acuña is one of the many Braves position players who have reported to Spring Training a week before the team’s first full-squad workout. He showed his raw power as he took batting practice with Matt Olson, Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies on Tuesday morning at CoolToday Park.

This could be a very rewarding year for Acuña, who is confident he will no longer be affected by the lingering results of the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his right knee on July 10, 2021.

Acuña returned by the end of last April and played 119 games for the Braves. But with his surgically-repaired knee still proving bothersome, he never consistently displayed the power and speed that makes him one of the best talents his franchise has ever seen.

This year should be different.

“I’m not going to have any pain, I’m going to be fully healthy and I’m going to be able to do whatever I’m capable of doing on the field,” Acuña said.

With Acuña just 25 years old, we still don’t know exactly what he is fully capable of doing on a baseball field. But the three-time All-Star provided a glimpse in 2019, when he finished three stolen bases shy of recording what would have been just the fifth 40-homer, 40-stolen base season in AL/NL history.

Acuña fell just short of joining that exclusive 40-40 club, and he also might have won the 2021 National League MVP Award had he not suffered his ACL tear while attempting to catch a fly ball along the warning track in Miami, two days before the All-Star break began.

So, the baseball world is looking forward to again watching a healthy Acuña pursue greatness over an entire season.

“I expect him to be better than the 2019 Ronald, when he went off,” Albies said. “I think he’s going to have a good year. Last year, he came back and he wasn’t playing at 100 percent. He feels better this year.”

Acuña hit .266 with 15 homers and a .764 OPS over 119 games in 2022. He was successful on 29 of 40 stolen base attempts (72.5 percent success rate) and homered once every 31.1 at-bats. It wasn’t a horrible season. It just didn’t match the levels he had reached the previous few years.

How far off was Acuña from his normal production? Over the 395 games he had appeared in before last year, he had hit .281 with a .925 OPS. He was successful in 78 of 99 stolen base attempts (78.8 percent success rate) and he homered once every 14.4 at-bats.

“I saw him grind through the whole year to make sure he was able to play all the time last year,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “That’s something that people on the outside don't see, but in the clubhouse you see it every single day. I’m happy for him that he’s going to be fully healthy for the whole year. I think it’s going to be pretty special.

“I’ve seen it a few times here. It’s indescribable and unfathomable the kind of show he can put on, especially when he gets hot.”

Acuña showed flashes of being himself while the Braves prevented him from playing over three consecutive days during his first few weeks back from the injured list last year. But his knee became more problematic and his production dipped after he began playing on a daily basis.

Having rested this offseason -- minus playing a couple of weeks in the Venezuelan Winter League -- Acuña has come to camp with both good health and his swagger. Now, he’s ready to show he can still be one of the game’s most dynamic and entertaining players for many years to come.