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It’s gonna be hilarious when the Braves send Ronald Acuna down for “seasoning”

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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.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.