Top of the Order: Ronald Acuña Jr. Is Irreplaceable

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Tuesday and Friday I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

The emotional toll of losing Ronald Acuña Jr. to another ACL tear is obvious. The entirety of the baseball world came together to express shock and disappointment at Sunday evening’s news that Acuña would need season-ending surgery for the second time in four years. At his best, Acuña is arguably the most electric player in the game, as we saw last year during his otherworldly MVP-winning campaign, when he became the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 70 bases in the same season. Baseball is simply not as exciting without him on the field.

Beyond that, though, the injury is a devastating loss for the Braves, whose probability to win the NL East — which was already diminished, as Dan Szymborski noted in his column on Friday — sunk by 10 percentage points within a day after Acuña went down. Sure, he was struggling over the first third of the season — he hit just four home runs in 49 games, and his OPS was nearly 300 points lower than last year’s mark — but his importance to the Atlanta lineup is undeniable.

Monday’s game, an 8-4 loss to the Nationals, provided a look at what the Braves’ offense will look like without the reigning MVP. The good news was that third baseman Austin Riley returned after missing 13 games with an intercostal strain, but it was clear that this was not the same unit that last year drew comparisons to the 1927 Yankees. Second baseman Ozzie Albies replaced Acuña in the leadoff spot, with Riley sliding to the two-hole and DH Marcell Ozuna, who’s been the team’s most productive hitter this year, moving from fifth to third in the order, ahead of slugging first baseman Matt Olson. After that, things drop off considerably, though it helps that catcher Sean Murphy is back from the oblique strain that kept him out since Opening Day.

Manager Brian Snitker said that Monday’s outfield will be the trio moving forward, with both Jarred Kelenic and Adam Duvall, who were platooning in left field before Acuña’s injury, expected to be in the lineup every day. Even so, this doesn’t seem like the permanent solution considering Kelenic is pretty unplayable against left-handed pitching; he entered Monday’s game, his first start all season against a lefty, with a 60 wRC+ off southpaws for his career.

So what, then, is the solution? Well, it’s going to take far more flexibility than Snitker has employed in prior years. It seems unlikely that Ozuna will play the outfield on a regular basis at this stage in his career, but I’d argue that whatever defensive misadventures he’d have out there would be worth freeing up the DH spot to get the bat of Travis d’Arnaud, an All-Star caliber catcher in his own right, into the lineup along with Murphy. The Braves have a third catcher, Chadwick Tromp, on their roster, which would allow them to start d’Arnaud and Murphy together without having to worry abut losing the DH if one of them were to get hurt. Or, if the Braves really don’t want to see Ozuna trip over himself in left, they could also consider letting shortstop Orlando Arcia see some time in the outfield, as he did in 2021 and 2022, to get another righty — backup shortstop Zack Short — in the lineup instead of Kelenic against tough lefties.

Atlanta could also take a page out of its 2021 playbook and remake its outfield through trades, as it did the last time Acuña had season-ending ACL surgery. Some of the players who could be available are Tyler O’Neill, Michael A. Taylor, and former Braves Eddie Rosario and Kevin Pillar. None of this is ideal, but if the 2021 Braves taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t write them off just because they lost their best player.

Weekend Roundup

And now, some insights from a long weekend of baseball, in case you were too busy at cookouts to keep up:

• The every-column Aaron Judge updates will continue until he’s no longer the most dangerous hitter on the planet. Judge added two more homers and another double to his ledger in the Yankees’ three-game set against the Padres. Since May 5, Judge has hit .412/.534/1.059, good for a wRC+ of 320. He has 11 round-trippers and 11 two-baggers in that 20-game span, raising his seasonal wRC+ from 115 to 188 over the course of just 88 trips to the plate.

Kyle Bradish is so back, baby. He pitched seven no-hit innings against the White Sox on Sunday, tying a career high with 11 strikeouts. His initial workload was limited after he missed the first month of the season with a UCL strain, but he now seems to have returned to full go. Sunday’s excellent start lowered his ERA to 1.75, backed up by a 2.11 FIP and 2.28 xERA. The O’s are going to need him to be healthy for the rest of the year: When Dean Kremer hit the IL on Friday with a triceps strain, that left ace Corbin Burnes as the only Baltimore starter to remain healthy and in the rotation all season. Still, the Orioles boast an excellent front three with Burnes, Bradish, and Grayson Rodriguez, who just made his own return from the IL after missing 18 days with shoulder inflammation.

• The Dodgers enter Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Mets as losers of five straight games — their longest losing streak since 2019. Making matters worse, the current cold snap has coincided with a Giants surge. After San Francisco beat the Phillies 8-4 on Monday, the Dodgers’ NL West lead is down to just five games. They are still the team to beat in the division, but things are certainly tighter than they were at this time last week.

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23 days ago

The Braves have won the East six consecutive seasons, but they’ve only made it out of the NLDS twice.

Once during the fluky AF COVID season.

Once when Acuña’s other ACL asploded… and they won the whole f’n thing.

Just gotta get to WC3, Atlanta. Because Postseason baseball is all-but-completely-random.

Last edited 23 days ago by Sleepy
23 days ago
Reply to  Sleepy

Agreed. Lament the loss of Acuna for a day or two, but then focus on the talent that the team still has to just get into the playoffs. This isn’t a Trout situation… the Braves are still very much in it.

23 days ago

Gotta agree, the bigger loss was Strider, especially heading into a short WC series.