The Braves have re-assigned much-hyped prospect Ronald Acuna to minor-league camp, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was among those to report on Twitter. He’ll presumably open the season at Triple-A.
It’s rarely notable when a 20-year-old is moved out of major-league camp. Then again, it’s fairly rare even to see a player of that age on the MLB side in the first place.
Acuna is a particularly special case. He began the 2017 season as a highly-regarded but largely untested youngster and finished the campaign as arguably the game’s best overall prospect after blitzing up the minor-league ladder. He opened at High-A and ended at Triple-A, improving his output all the while. Acuna finished with a cumulative .325/.374/.522 slash over 612 trips to the plate, adding 21 long balls and 44 steals to go with it.
Recent developments have only raised Acuna’s profile further. He mashed his way through the Arizona Fall League and has laid waste to the Grapefruit League this spring, posting a .432/.519/.727 batting line with four home runs and four swiped bags in 52 plate appearances.
There’s not much question that Acuna is ready for the majors. But the Braves are evidently not quite ready for him to join the active roster. That’s hardly a surprise, as the organization has consistently indicated Acuna would open in the minors, but it remains quite notable.
It’s impossible to ignore the service-time factors at play here. So long as Acuna is not allowed to accrue 172 days of service in the coming season, he won’t accrue a full season of MLB service. That would allow the Braves to play him in the majors for most of the upcoming campaign while still controlling him for six full seasons after that point. (Of course, the club might also try to hold him down long enough to prevent future Super Two status, though that would be yet a harder sell.)
Of course, even a delay of a few weeks’ time can have an impact on a team’s won-loss record. But that’s not a particularly pressing concern for this organization. While Atlanta had been looking to 2018 as a season to gear up for contention, a series of events — the poor finish to 2017, stunning front office upheaval, and big salary swapping trade that pushed financial obligations forward — seemingly conspired to change the plans.
In that regard, the considerations are a bit different than in the much-discussed case of then-top-prospect Kris Bryant back in 2015. Bryant, who was also a good deal older than Acuna, started in the minors despite a torrid spring and was held down just long enough for the Cubs to ensure that additional season of control. He played in 151 games after arriving and helped lead the team to a postseason berth.
We’ve never yet seen a situation as eyebrow-raising as Bryant’s and probably never will. But Acuna is certainly in the same general category: a super-premium prospect who has shown everything needed to prove he’s ready — at least from an on-field perspective — to play at the game’s highest level. Instead, the Braves will at least open the year with some kind of platoon in left field, likely featuring some combination of Lane Adams, Charlie Culberson, Danny Santana, Preston Tucker, and/or Ezequiel Carrera.
Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos explained his thought process to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, stating that Acuna’s own developmental needs were the primary concern. Atlanta’s new top baseball decisionmaker also suggested he would not have been as inclined as the prior front office group to move Acuna up so quickly last year.
It’ll be interesting to see whether or how the Major League Baseball Player’s Association addresses today’s decision by the Braves. The union has already felt squeezed on the free-agent side of the service-time spectrum, making it especially notable to see a top young talent handled in a manner seemingly designed (at least in part) to delay his entry onto the open market.