Most 19 year-olds, even the best ones, are revealed at some point to not be ready for the next level. They’re 19. It happens. But in 2017 Braves outfield prospect Ronald Acuna showed that no minor league level was ready for him.
He started last year’s campaign at high-A Florida, where he hit .287/.336/.478 in 28 games. He then moved on to Double-A Mississippi, where he hit .326/.374/.520 with nine homers and 19 steals in 243 plate appearances. You’d figure at his age that Triple-A would eat him alive, but he then went on to Gwinnett and hit .344/.393/.548 in 243 plate appearances with nine homers 14 doubles and 11 stolen bases. All together he hit .325/.366/.522 with 21 homers, 44 steals and 31 doubles across three levels. He didn’t turn 20 until December.
So far this spring Acuna is continuing to rake. Entering play yesterday he led the Grapefruit League in average, hitting .412, and OBP, reaching base at a .512 clip. He went 1-for-2 with a homer, his third of the spring. He’s not just padding those numbers against tomato cans, either. All three of his homers have come off of legit big league pitchers: Masahiro Tanaka, Aaron Sanchez and Mike Fiers. We know spring training stats don’t mean a heck of a lot, but between them, his minor league track record and the fact that he is the consensus top prospect in baseball, with scouts raving about him, it’s safe to say that Acuna is major league ready.
All of which is going to make it hilarious when the Braves cut him and send him to the minors to start the season, as they are widely expected to do.
You know and I know why they’ll do it: service time. If they keep Acuna down for a couple of weeks in April, he won’t get enough service time in 2018 to make him a potential free agent until after the 2024 season as opposed to the 2023 season. We saw the Cubs do this with Kris Bryant a couple of years back. We’ve seen a lot of guys go through this. Barring something extraordinary happening, I strongly suspect the Braves will do it with Acuna too.
At this point people tend to shout “Hey, it’s the smart play! You’d do it too if you were the Braves! It could save them millions and it won’t make a difference given that they won’t be contending in 2018. That’s how the system is set up and you can’t blame the Braves for taking advantage of it!”
Save it. I know this. I’ve heard it a million times and I don’t really care. I don’t care — and you should not care either — because neither you or I are the general manager of the Atlanta Braves. It’s not our money the Braves would be saving, it’s Liberty Media’s money. It’s not our job to make sure the Braves are cost conscious or competitive from year to year, it’s the club’s. If Acuna is approaching free agency on a winning Braves team in 2023 instead of 2024, the Braves will still have the same basic decision to make about his future and, if they’re smart, they’ll have made it long before then anyway. If one year of free agency of one key player is the difference between the Braves winning and losing, they’ve not done the best job they could building a team anyway.
My interest is as a fan and, as a fan, I want the Braves to put the best team they possibly can put together now, later and far into the future, not just far into the future. I will be a lot more excited about the team I root for if Ronald Acuna is on the club on Opening Day and some appeal to efficiency and cost consciousness come 2024 will not make me enjoy watching Lane Adams any more than I already do.
If you feel differently about that, fine, but I’d ask you to ask yourself why you feel it necessary to view things from the perspective of the front office as opposed to the perspective of a fan who, each day, should want to see the best players the organization has to offer. I’d also ask you to ask yourself why you take the front office at face value when it says stuff like “we can’t afford Player X when he hits free agency, so we need to keep his costs down now.” Such assertions, which are implicit in any appeal to the wisdom of keeping Acuna down on the farm to start the season, are not deserving of blind acceptance, especially from a club who just saw its revenues skyrocket because of a new taxpayer-funded ballpark. Such appeals to the future, which cannot be rationally questioned given the way they are poised, are stacked against the fan in the present.
None of which will sway most of you, I presume, and none of which will sway the Braves. I strongly suspect Acuna will be sent down and, when he is, I strongly suspect most fans will applaud it as a shrewd move. If he does get sent down, the Republic will not fall and the world will not end. He’ll be up eventually, probably by May. We will not have been harmed too terribly much by that delay, even if Acuna’s eventual financial windfall is put off a year. After all, just as the Braves money is not our money, neither is Acuna’s.
I will be eager to hear the reasoning for his demotion when it comes, however, because we know from experience it will not be honest. Yes, the Braves are within their rights to send Acuna down, but they are almost certainly unwilling to say such a thing. As the Cubs did with Kris Bryant, they will say he has to work on his defense or some other aspect of his game that is less than perfectly quantifiable and thus, like appeals to the future, defensible via an appeal to the club’s authority. Part of me hopes they get super creative with it. “Acuna is great, but he really hasn’t mastered the traffic patterns in Cobb County yet, and we want to send him to our suburban Triple-A team so he can get a better feel for cloverleaf interchanges in a lower pressure situation” would be a good one. Feel free to use it, Braves.
In the meantime, we can all marvel at the silliness of it all. At how and why a baseball team would deprive itself of one of its best players, even if for only a few weeks, and what that means for the way the game is arranged, financially speaking. And why, despite the clear reason being a financial one, they will not simply admit that that’s what they’re doing, even if they have the right.