On Monday night, batting second in the order for the class high-A Florida Fire Frogs of the Florida State League, Braves outfield prospect Ronald Acuna had two hits, including a triple, walked, scored two runs, and knocked in another two. This is a good day at the plate for anyone, and over the last two weeks, it’s also become fairly typical for Acuna, who has had six multi-hit games during that time. Over the last two weeks, Acuna has been hitting .353/.410/.611. Of his 19 hits during the period, 7 have been extra-base hits, including 2 homers.
Overall, Acuna is hitting .287/.336/.478 in his first taste of high-A ball. This is coming after hitting .296/.387/.444 in 13 major league spring training games, a surprisingly extended look for a player who hadn’t played over the low-A level. This was only a few weeks after he hit .375/.446/.556 for the Melbourne Aces of the Australian Baseball League, where he gained the nickname “The Answer to Everything”. This was after Acuna finished his low-A season in Rome hitting .311/.387/.432, and .342/.381/.553 down the stretch after returning from a thumb injury that knocked out him out for most of the summer.
Considering all of the above, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Acuna has been promoted to class AA Mississippi, the first major in-season promotion for a top Braves prospect in 2017. After all, the Braves are an organization that has shown little hesitation in aggressively promoting 19-year-olds in the recent past. Last season, Ozzie Albies was promoted straight to AA Mississippi out of spring training, skipping the high-A level completely, despite only being 19 years old and missing the last six weeks of the 2015 season with a thumb injury. This season, 19-year-old pitchers Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard skipped the high-A level and started in Mississippi.
Acuna will be the youngest player at the AA level by four months. Second oldest? Allard. Third? Soroka.
Is This Promotion a Good Idea?
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks associated with this move at this time.
The one chink in Acuna’s armor has been his 31.7% strikeout rate during his tenure with Florida. At the same time, his walk rate has dropped to 6.3%. During his time in Rome, Acuna struck out at only a 16.4% rate, and walked at a 10.5% rate.
This appears to be a side effect of Acuna deliberately changing his batting profile. Acuna is hitting the ball harder and putting the ball into the air more, while his groundball rate has plummeted from over 60% in Rome to only 35% in Florida. This has contributed to a .411 BABiP.
So in short, he’s putting the ball in play less, but when he does he’s doing more damage, and he’s not particularly interested in walking right now. The fact that he’s getting promoted while doing this shows that this is in response to deliberate coaching.
So is this promotion a good idea? The answer probably won’t be found in simply statline scouting (and thanks the Florida State League not streaming any of their games, that’s all I have to work worth, grumble grumble). Overall, I think the trends here are good. Acuna has demonstrated good strikezone awareness in the past, and I really doubt he’s truly a 25%+ strikeout rate player in the long-term. Statline scouting is even less valuable when the sample size is small, and only 126 plate appearances is still a small sample size.
Going to AA Mississippi, in addition to challenging him with a higher class of pitching, will also put him in an extreme pitcher’s park in terms of limiting home runs. Acuna’s new emphasis on making hard contact may actually play well at TrustMark Park, as it did with Albies last season, as the amount of outfield to cover favors hitters that can regularly shoot the gaps for doubles and triples.
So what’s really the downside? Acuna could move to Mississippi and not be able to hit, he gets discouraged or loses confidence, and the Braves lose a year of development. Is this likely? From everything I understand about Acuna, its very unlikely that he will lose confidence. He is not likely to be intimidated, and the Braves are on record in believing that failure in itself is a valuable development tool.
So in short, I think this is a good idea.
What Happens Next?
Of course, the most fun part of all this is imagining where Acuna could end up in the near-term if he does very well in Mississippi.
We have two recent examples of position player prospects moving quickly through the system. The most obvious is Ozzie Albies, who was also 19 last season. He started in AA Mississippi, skipping the high-A level, and hit very well. He was promoted to AAA Gwinnett in May, and struggled for a few weeks before pretty much righting the ship, then getting sent back to AA Mississippi to switch over to second base and play the infield with Dansby Swanson and ended up with a Southern League batting title. Albies’s season ended with an injury suffered in a playoff game that slowed him in the offseason and sabotaged any thought that he may begin the season alongside Swanson in Atlanta.
My feeling is that without that injury, Albies would have followed Swanson to Atlanta at the conclusion of the Mississippi playoff run and had a three week audition at second base. If that had been successful, the Brandon Phillips trade would not have happened and the Braves would have opened up with rookies at both middle infield spots.
Speaking of Swanson, other than age, his case matches up even more so with Acuna. Swanson started last season at the high-A level after injury prevented him from getting significant plate appearances at low-A. He played in high-A for approximately one month before moving on to AA Mississippi where he spent most of the season before getting the call to The Show in mid-August, where he has remained to date.
So too recent examples of position players making fast transitions within the system. Swanson made it to Atlanta before the end of the season. I believe Albies would have as well as well if not for injury. So does this mean Acuna has a shot to make it to Atlanta before the end on the 2017 season?
Who Else Could Be Promoted Soon?
Looking strictly at the position players on the OFR top 30 prospect list, here’s the possibilities:
- 2B Ozzie Albies, AAA. Albies has gotten off to a somewhat sluggish start to the season, though he has looked better than his stat-line would indicate (.252/.282/.390). His batting profile shows that he too seems to be trying to put the ball in the air more than he had in the past, resulting in higher strikeout rates, but without having the ball-in-play success that Acuna experienced with Florida. With Brandon Phillips in Atlanta, there’s no rush to promote him at this time, but that could change closer to the trade deadline if the organization finds a trade offer for Phillips that they like.
- SS Kevin Maitan, Extended Spring Training. Maitan still has yet to play in his first pro game where numbers are kept, but eyewitness reports from Orlando have him still playing shortstop, and still getting bigger. Ben Badler of Baseball America thinks there’s a possibility of him making his pro debut in June in the Appalachian League Danville Braves rather than the more instructional Gulf Coast Braves, putting the 17-year-old on a fast track from the get-go.
- 3B Austin Riley, A+. On Sunday, Riley hit his 7th home run of the year, and over the last two weeks has slashed .373/.411/.686. Mississippi’s third base position has been filled primarily by utility infielder Luiz Valenzuela, who is off to a fine start. But Valenzuela is not Austin Riley, and unless Riley gets cold I would expect a mid-season promotion based on his play.
- OF Dustin Peterson, DL. Peterson hasn’t played since fracturing the hamate bone in his hand in spring training and there has been no word on when he will return. He was on track to make his big league debut at some point in 2017 before the injury, but everything is up in the air now though he did thoughtfully post footage of himself taking batting practice in extended spring training as I was writing this, so hopefully a return is not too far away.
- 3B Rio Ruiz, AAA. With Adonis Garcia‘s play in Atlanta continuing to be less than inspirational, the time seems to be coming soon for Ruiz to seize the opportunity. So far, he hasn’t really done so, though if we use the last two weeks yardstick again, he’s slashing .313/.378/.688. I do believe Ruiz will be granted the opportunity, and it will happen before the end of May.
- C Alex Jackson, A+. There has been no bigger story among Braves minor league position players than the offensive explosion from Alex Jackson with the Fire Frogs. He is currently slashing .295/.344/.590, and leads his circuit with 10 home runs, just one away from matching the career high he set last season. Cast off by Seattle, Jackson seems to have responded well to Braves coaching and a move back to his high school position of catcher. Recently Florida hitting coach Carlos Mendez said “He’s a really smart hitter and he’s so, so strong. He’s probably the strongest player I’ve ever seen. He reminds me of Gattis, back in his first year, but Jackson is a better hitter.” Does this mean a promotion is in the near future? Given he’s still working on his catching transition, and given the way TrustMark Park eats up power hitters, I think Jackson will stick in Florida for most, if not all of the season.
- 2B Travis Demeritte, AA. After Jackson, perhaps the most pleasant surprise among the position players so far in the young season has been how Demeritte has slashed his strikeout rate from unsustainable +30% levels last season to a reasonable 23% rate this season, while maintaining his already healthy walk and line-drive rates. That’s not to say that his current .257/.336/.413 is going to give anyone the vapors, but considering the challenging league and home ballpark, Demeritte’s progress has been encouraging. That said, I don’t foresee a promotion soon, though a second-half push to AAA may not be out of the question, especially if Albies moves up.
- OF Cristian Pache, A. The 18-year-old Pache got off to a hot start in Rome, but has cooled recently and is now slashing .250/.321/.323 while fighting off a handful of nagging injuries. The Braves tend to like giving teenaged players full seasons at Rome, and right now I don’t see them breaking that habit with Pache.
- OF Braxton Davidson, A+. No.
- 3B Juan Yepez, A. After an injury-shortened 2016 campaign, Yepez has been Rome’s best overall hitter so far this season and has also shown out well at third base. Like Pache though, I think he’ll spend the whole season in Rome. He’s still only 19 years old, nearly a full year younger than Riley.
- SS Yunior Severino, Extended Spring Training. In the same boat as Maitan, will likely start in the Gulf Coast League with a possible mid-season promotion to Danville based on merit.
- SS Derian Cruz, A: No.
- C Brett Cumberland, A: Cumberland may be an exception to the stay-all-year-in-Rome rule since he’s a college player. If his play improves, he could get a late-season promotion similar to that of right-hander Patrick Weigel. Cumberland was one of the few Rome players to start slow at the plate, but again using the last two weeks has a .552 OBP.
- C Jonathan Morales, A+. Morales is the more advanced catcher of the Fire Frogs defensively, but has been overshadowed at the plate by Jackson. On the season he’s hit a fairly pedestrian .259/.304/.315 though he’s had some big games. With Kade Scivique capably handing catching duties a AA, splitting catching and DH with Jackson seems to be a good spot for him.
- OF Ray-Patrick Didder, A+. I thought that Didder would have an outside shot at starting the season at AA Mississippi, but the Braves elected to give Jarad James to double promotion. Now Acuna has zoomed past him in the organizational ladder. Didder’s only slashing .212/.331/.301 right now despite a robust 13% walk rate. He’s striking out at a 27% rate however, and when he does make contact he’s only hitting 289 on those balls in play. In total, it looks like he also is trying to make an effort to hit the ball with more authority, getting the expected high strikeout rate as a result, but not getting the better results on balls-in-play this is propelling Acuna’s success. This may just be bad luck, but it bares watching… which would be a lot easier to do if the Florida State League would stream their games. Oh, I mentioned that before?