The Brave New Acuña Era

The Ronald Acuña era has begun, and in impressive fashion. Called up by the Braves on Wednesday after his service clock had been sufficiently gamed, the 20-year-old five-tool phenom made his debut against the Reds in Cincinnati, showing off his speed and his aggressive approach at the plate. He sparked a game-tying rally with his first major-league hit, and the Braves ultimately snapped a two-game losing streak against the Reds with a 5-4 win.

Acuña, who turned 20 on December 18, spent 2017 rocketing up the organizational ladder and the prospect rankings, beginning the season at High-A Florida and finishing it at Triple-A Gwinnett, hitting a combined .325/.374/.522 with 21 homers and 44 steals along the way. After ranking anywhere from 31st to 67th on major prospect lists last year, he topped those of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN this spring, taking a back seat only to Shohei Ohtani on those of and FanGraphs. Though he tore up the Grapefruit League this spring, either his hat was too crooked or his 2024 season too valuable for the Braves to attempt to start winning games with him in the lineup. General manager Alex Anthopoulos mumbled something about “the flow of the season,” millions of eyes rolled, and the team bought itself that extra year while Acuña started 2-for-19 at Triple-A Gwinnett.

The assumption with that move was that the Braves were just marking time in the fourth season of a rebuilding program that’s been far more dramatic than most, in terms of both highs (the stealing of 2015 overall No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson from the Diamondbacks, the 2017 opening of SunTrust Park) and lows (the mid-2016 firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez, the late-2017 resignation and subsequent lifetime ban of general manager John Coppolella for circumventing international signing rules). With Wednesday’s win, they’re now 13-10, their best start in five years and good for third place in a topsy-turvy NL East behind the Mets (15-7) and Phillies (15-8). That trio of teams finished a combined 70 games below .500 last year, but with the Nationals (11-14) starting slowly and the Marlins stripped nearly to the bone after a 77-85 finish that was somehow good for second place, the standings look a whole lot different.

I’ll get back to the division picture but first, the debut. Batting sixth and playing left field, Acuña saw just two pitches in his first two plate appearances, which came with runners on base and resulted in loud outs. In the first inning, after the team had already scratched out a run against Reds starter Brandon Finnegan via a pair of singles, a steal, and a throwing error, Acuña scorched a fat slider to the warning track in left-center field, with an exit velocity of 100.8 mph. In the third, he lined a juicy fastball to right field with a 97.4 mph exit velo. Facing Austin Brice in the sixth inning, he struck out looking at a 94.8 mph two-seamer that didn’t sink, but against Kevin Shackleford in the eighth, with the Braves down 4-3, he stroked a two-strike fastball up the middle for his first base hit, then showed off his wheels by zipping from first to third on a Swanson single to left field:

Acuña scored the game-tying run on a Kurt Suzuki single, and the Braves plated the go-ahead run in the ninth, when Ozzie Albies — who had singled and scored in the first, and hit a solo homer in the fifth — was hit by a pitch and ultimately scored on a Johan Camargo double. The Braves had to hold their collective breaths until Ender Inciarte hauled in Adam Duvall’s 382-foot drive at the base of the right-center-field wall for the final out, but thanks in part to the new kid, they were back in the win column for the first time since Saturday.

At the outset of the season, the Braves were forecast for 73 wins, with a 3.2% chance of making the playoffs. They beat the Phillies on Opening Day via Nick Markakis’s walk-off three-run homer and haven’t spent a day below .500 yet. Of their first seven series, they’ve won five (at home against the Phillies twice and the Nationals and Mets once apiece, and on the road against the Rockies), split one (against the Cubs in Chicago), and lost one (against the Nationals in Washington). They’ll need to win on Thursday to salvage a split in Cincinnati, but with the exception of the Reds, their opponents thus far finished Wednesday a combined 15 games above .500. Their +27 run differential is the league’s fifth-best; they’ve outscored opponents by more than a run per game.

On the offensive side, the Braves have bashed out 5.52 runs per contest, good for second in the league, because they’ve been getting above-average production at every position except center field, where Inciarte has struggled. Freddie Freeman (165 wRC+) has been his usual stud self, and Suzuki (173), Markakis (142), and third baseman Ryan Flaherty (134) have produced far above expectations in ways that won’t be sustained. What’s really of interest is the progress of the team’s two young middle infielders, Albies and Swanson.

Albies, who came up last August 1 and turned 21 on January 7, is hitting .283/.330/.606 with a 153 wRC+ and a team-high seven homers, one more than he hit in 57 games last year en route to a 112 wRC+ and 1.9 WAR. Swanson, who turned 24 on February 11, is hitting .326/.376/.512 for a 136 wRC+, a promising turnaround after a campaign that saw him go from NL Rookie of the Year favorite to Gwinnett Brave, Again to a 66 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR. Both could stand to draw more walks, given rates of 4.7% and 7.1%, respectively, but Swanson’s 4.19 pitches per plate appearance is in a virtual tie with Bryce Harper for 20th in the league, and both have been among the majors’ most productive two-strike hitters thus far (as have Freeman and Markakis).

Acuña’s arrival bumps Preston Tucker into a fourth-outfielder role and provides some balance to a very lefty-heavy lineup; Suzuki and Swanson are the only other righties, while Albies is a switch-hitter. Ideally, manager Brian Snitker could sit Inciarte against lefties given his career 76 wRC+ against same-siders, allowing Acuña to keep his center-field skills fresh, but Tucker (career 27 wRC+ against lefties) isn’t the right piece for that maneuver. Jose Bautista, ostensibly signed to play third base, has far more experience at the outfield corners (though more right field than left); he’d make more sense in that capacity if he can indeed resuscitate his bat after a dismal age-36 season in Toronto. He’s four games into a stint at Gwinnett and could arrive soon.

Inevitably, the offense will regress at least somewhat. If the Braves are truly to turn the corner, the question is how well the pitching will hold up. At the outset of the season, the rotation placed 22nd in our positional power rankings, but currently, the unit — Julio Teheran, Brandon McCarthy, Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, and Matt Wisler, filling in for the injured Anibal Sanchez — is fourth in the NL in ERA (3.33), fifth in strikeout rate (24.0%), and seventh in FIP (4.29); they’re in the league’s bottom-third in walks and homers.

The bullpen’s performance has been less impressive (10th in ERA at 4.18, 11th in FIP at 3.96, 13th in K% at 22.6%) and more on par with their preseason ranking, but rookie lefty A.J. Minter, who logged his first save on Wednesday night, could emerge as a key piece alongside Arodys Vizcaino. For the moment, there’s really nothing to do but throw relatively untested arms like his and those of Dan Winkler and Shane Carle into the fire and hope for the best, knowing that the system has plenty of near-ready arms through which to sort.

So far, the team’s projected win total has inched up to 78, their playoff odds to 8.3%. Their ability to outdo that forecast and to stay in the race will require a whole lot of the aforementioned players to exceed expectations. But with Acuña on board, and the other kids producing, this suddenly looks like a very exciting season for the Braves.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Sounds like Bautista is going to be slotted in at third and not the OF…

Walk-off balk
Walk-off balk

Which I think is a dumb move. Let Camargo and Flaherty play, and platoon Bautista with Markakis.