Ronald Acuna is the top prospect in baseball and, the Braves hope, their next franchise player. Though only 19 last season, he sailed through three minor league levels, even handling Triple-A pitching with ease, batting .344/.393/.548 with nine homers in 54 games. The outfielder is in big league camp right now and the smart money has him spending most of his year in Atlanta.
Mark Bowman of MLB.com reports, however, that the Braves would like to see something else from him before he makes the big leagues:
The Braves want Acuna to wear his hat straight and maintain a professional appearance while in uniform. But they do not want to change much about the fun-loving, flamboyant approach that has made him one of the game’s most exciting young players.
A straight cap? Is that something that really matters in this day and age? That comment, not attributed to anyone in the organization, is just sort of hanging out there. I’ve met and talked to Mark Bowman a number of times and I have no reason to suspect that that’s him just editorializing. He’s not a “play the game the right way” kind of guy who would be bothered by a young player wearing his cap crooked. It sounds like it’s something he’s heard people with the Braves say and Bowman is slipping it in there.
Indeed, someone with the Braves right now — spring instructor Andruw Jones — is explicitly on the “respect the game” train. Here he is talking about Acuna:
“Cocky is a good thing. But respecting the game is also very important . . . The main thing he needs to remember is keep your head straight and respect [your surroundings] . . . Be humble, but a humble-cocky.”
Whatever that means. It’s baseballspeak. If you win 20 in the show you can have fungus on your shower shoes, etc.
My specific issue here isn’t to harp on someone caring about Acuna’s cap, even if that’s a dumb thing to care about. I flag this mostly because I suspect that this narrative on Acuna — he’s great but he’s young and needs to learn to respect the game — is aimed at laying the groundwork for an excuse to keep him in the minors for service time issues to start the season, even if he rakes all spring training long. I mean, yes, the Braves are almost certain to do that anyway because keeping young players from arbitration and free agency for as long as possible is what clubs do, but clubs do prefer to have a pretext if at all possible so as not to be so obvious about it. Remember the Kris Bryant controversy? No one wants that.
In the meantime, knowing how a certain swath of Braves fandom operates when presented with a certain sort of young player, I suspect the Braves’ concern about Acuna’s maturity, his respect for the game and the straightness of his cap will serve as a source of criticism for the young prospect. Watch for comments about his cap and his “professionalism” on a Braves message board near you.