In 2013, the Atlanta Braves appeared to be on the cusp of a run of continued success.
After acquiring B.J. Upton and his brother Justin Upton in the offseason to play alongside Georgia native Jason Heyward, the Braves outfield looked secure for several years to come. Their pitching staff looked strong as well, as a young core that featured Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran had the depth of a 90s Braves rotation. Atlanta also had pitching security in the ninth inning, as fire-baller Craig Kimbrel, the game’s top closer, was signed to a long-term deal.
The Braves were successful in 2013 as their lineup showed tremendous power, and though this came with a plethora of strikeouts and volatility, it allowed the Braves to finish with the second-most wins in the National League.
By the end of 2014, however, after the Braves disappointed and missed the playoffs, the Atlanta front office made the decision to clean house. General Manager Frank Wren was fired and John Coppolella replaced him before beginning what proved to be a lengthy rebuild. Many of the aforementioned top players were traded to obtain prospects and the Braves circled 2017 and 2018 as the seasons in which they hoped to compete again.
The mood in Atlanta surrounding the Braves has been somber for years now, and the Braves were not able to put together a playoff-caliber team for the opening of their new ballpark, SunTrust Park, in 2017.
Despite several straight losing seasons, the Braves appear to be on the rise. The young prospects are beginning to develop, and the Braves now have what is arguably the top farm system in all of baseball. Though the pitching talent tends to be the talk around the Braves system, this season, a Venezuelan teenager has caught the attention of Braves fans and the national media.
Ronald Acuna, a 19-year-old outfielder, has earned the status of top prospect in the Braves system, and he should be considered the top prospect in all of baseball.
After an injury in early 2016, Acuna was nearly absent from many top prospect talks before the 2017 season. Acuna, undeterred by the lack of attention, surged through the Braves system like a bat out of hell, slashing .325/.374/.522 with 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases. Acuna projects as a legitimate five-tool player, and his bat speed, raw power, and defensive acuity combine to form shades of the last Braves teenage phenom: Andruw Jones. Andruw Jones, too, lit the minor leagues on fire with his athleticism, and Jones went on to become the youngest player to homer in a World Series and hit 434 home runs over the course of his career.
This comparison is not far-fetched either, as their swings are eerily similar, and not only has Acuna torn his way through the minor leagues, he appears to be improving as the competition around him improves. After hitting .287 in High A Florida, Acuna hit .326 at AA Mississippi, and most impressively, he hit a jaw-dropping .344 at AAA Gwinnett despite being the youngest player in the league. He flashed power to all fields and “plus” right field defense as well, both critical skills for sustained success in the big leagues.
Acuna’s prodigious rise through the Braves system has now brought a new hope to Atlanta fans that the Braves could compete again as early as next season, as Acuna could potentially debut at age 20 in the spring of 2018. If this to happen, he would likely be the youngest player in the MLB and expectations would likely be through the roof, and though such expectations carry certain dangers, Acuna has proven time and time again that he can rise to the occasion. His youth, power and freakish athleticism all point toward his becoming one of the greatest talents in the game.