Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

news

MLB News

Believe the hype: Why Acuna is No. 2 prospect

MLB.com @JonathanMayo

It was always a matter of when, not if, when it came to Ronald Acuna Jr.'s Major League debut. The answer to when came on Tuesday night, as it was reported the five-tool outfielder, No. 2 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, would join the Braves in Cincinnati for Wednesday's game.

Sure, the argument could easily be made that Acuna should have been on Atlanta's Opening Day roster, and the complaints about keeping him down to prevent his service-time clock from starting have been noted and filed away. Now the fun can begin in watching the 20-year-old do his thing at the big league level and trying to set a fair level of expectations out of the gate.

It was always a matter of when, not if, when it came to Ronald Acuna Jr.'s Major League debut. The answer to when came on Tuesday night, as it was reported the five-tool outfielder, No. 2 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, would join the Braves in Cincinnati for Wednesday's game.

Sure, the argument could easily be made that Acuna should have been on Atlanta's Opening Day roster, and the complaints about keeping him down to prevent his service-time clock from starting have been noted and filed away. Now the fun can begin in watching the 20-year-old do his thing at the big league level and trying to set a fair level of expectations out of the gate.

• Braves' Top 30 Prospects list | Braves prospects stats

Of course, Acuna has done his best to make any attempts to limit projections of what he can do seem like a waste of time. After ripping through three levels of the Minors in 2017 and finishing with a 20-40 season and a .325 average, after clearly being the best prospect in the Arizona Fall League and earning Most Valuable Player Award honors upon finishing with a 1.053 OPS and topping the fall circuit in home runs, all before he turned 20, after being the best player in the Grapefruit League this spring, hitting .432 and slugging .727, it seems less than prudent to forecast anything but superstardom.

Video: PHI@ATL: Acuna hits first HR of season at Triple-A

But let's not engrave Acuna's plaque in Cooperstown just yet, OK? There is no doubt that he is ready to showcase all of his tools at the highest level. He is one of just three overall 70s (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) on the Top 100, matched only by Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, who gets a 70 as a pitcher, and Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. And Acuna is the only hitter with grades of 60 or higher across all five tools (hit, power, run, arm, field). His hands are as fast as any hitter's, with plus-plus bat speed that allows him to make hard contact to all fields on a ridiculously consistent basis.

The power that showed up last year is for real, and many think Acuna has only started scratching the surface with the 21 homers he hit during the 2017 regular season. (If you add in his AFL at-bats, he hit 28 in 640 at-bats -- as a teenager.) He's only going to be able to tap into it more as he continues to refine his approach.

Acuna has close to top-of-the-scale speed, and the 44 steals he had in 2017 seems about right as a regular projection. That speed allows him to cover a ton of ground in the outfield. With Acuna in left field, the Braves will have two plus defensive center fielders in him and Ender Inciarte, something that will make Atlanta's pitching staff happy, no doubt.

Video: ATL@HOU: Acuna collects three singles vs. Astros

While it might not seem like it, Acuna has struggled at times, often at the start of a season or new level. In 2017, he hit just .231 over his first 15 games in the Florida State League before things started to click. He raked right when he got to Double-A, but he took a minute to adjust to Triple-A, hitting .225 over his first 11 games there.

Acuna's slow start this year has been well-documented. He went 0-for-11 over his first three games and was hitting just .139 through nine games. Acuna then proceeded to hit in eight of his next nine games to raise his average nearly 100 points, giving the Braves confidence that he had his feet under him and was ready for this highly anticipated callup.

The only other remotely negative thing on Acuna's Minor League resume has been his strikeout rate. Including his 27.4-percent K rate this season, Acuna has struck out in 21.3 percent of his plate appearances in his career. He lowered that rate each time he moved up a level in 2017, and he has shown some willingness to draw walks.

These "weaknesses" are only brought up to temper what's sure to be wild expectations. Acuna's K rate has hardly kept him from hitting and being productive, and there's reason to believe his approach will continue to improve as he matures. He's quickly gotten past slow starts, so even if he doesn't set the world on fire starting on Wednesday -- and he might -- he'll figure it out sooner rather than later.

The last time Atlanta was so excited about a young outfield phenom coming up, Andruw Jones joined the club as a teenager in 1996 and ended up playing in the World Series, then finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year Award voting in '97. It should be noted that from '96-97, Jones hit just .228 over 505 at-bats, albeit with 23 homers and 23 steals. Seeing Acuna surpass that benchmark doesn't seem unreasonable.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

Atlanta Braves