ATLANTA — It goes without saying that two games into a Major League Baseball season is too soon to hit any kind of panic button. But the Atlanta Braves have been dealt an early blow behind the plate.
And it’s a blow that will also be felt in the middle of the lineup.
Veteran catchers Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki were each forced from their first starts of the season. It started on Opening Day, when Flowers was lost to an oblique strain suffered in his first at-bat. That landed him on the 10-day disabled list. Then the following night, Suzuki was hit by pitch in the right palm and made an early exit.
While the team is hopeful Suzuki will only miss a few days, there is no timetable for Flowers’ return. Oblique injuries vary by case and severity, but typically take a few weeks to heal and can be a lingering problem if not handled properly.
“I’ve had teammates over the years try and rush it to get back and they end up dealing with it for an entire season, so I definitely don’t plan on doing that,” Flowers said of his first bout with an oblique issue. “I think we’ll be as aggressive as we can be. I don’t want this to turn into multiple months when it could be something significantly shorter if we kind of take our time throughout the process.”
The Braves’ veteran catchers were two of their most productive players last season. The duo combined for 31 home runs and a team-leading 5.2 WAR between them in 2017. The absence of one, or both men, will have a direct effect on the bottom line of production in the Atlanta lineup, which was already light on power entering the season.
Outside of Freddie Freeman, the Braves entered this season without a single hitter that surpassed the 20-home run plateau in 2017 and only one man, Nick Markakis, who’d ever done so at any point in his big league career. However, the last time he did so was 2008.
As the club is currently constructed, Markakis remains one of the men who will be most heavily depended upon in the middle of the order. He delivered a game-winning homer in the season opener and logged the most at-bats with runners on base of any Atlanta hitter in 2017.
“Nick had a really good spring, worked his tail off,” said manager Brian Snitker. “He’s a guy that I trust every night. He’s going to show up and give you everything he has. He’s been through the wars and it makes him the pro that he is.”
The Braves will need more from the middle and bottom of the order, however.
The team stands to get a power boost from top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. at some point, but that can hardly be counted on to solve all the lineup’s needs. Without Flowers and Suzuki for any length of time and with third base still not settled, there are currently a few more questions than answers in the Atlanta lineup.
Then there’s the effect the loss of Flowers and Suzuki could have behind the plate and with the pitching staff, which must forge new partnerships with different battery mates. Both men received high praise from Braves pitchers last season. But now the staff will be entering some unfamiliar territory of sorts.
Flowers recognized as much when talking to reporters after being placed on the disabled list.
“To go through all spring and develop those relationships working together and all the time you spend down there to prepare for that game and everything, you know it’s tough,” said Flowers. “Now just be patient, work hard and try and get back.”
Veteran Chris Stewart signed early in the spring and will be the first man to get a chance for playing time with Flowers on the DL. An MRI showed no broken bones in Suzuki’s right hand. so he could be back sometime early next week. Should he require a quick trip to the disabled list, things may get a little dicier behind the plate for a while.
Stewart made his first start for Atlanta in Saturday’s 15-2 win over the Philadelphai Phillies. He went 2-for-4 with two RBI and two runs scored. The 36-year-old is beginning his 12th big league season and has carved a solid niche as a capable back-up catcher. He’ll be relied upon more heavily in the weeks to come, however.
“His catch-release, the way be blocks, you know he’s been around for a long time, so he knows how to call a game too,” Snitker said of Stewart’s skill set following Saturday’s game. “He’s good for our pitchers and it’s just nice to see him contribute with the bat.”
In order to create some depth at the position, Atlanta swung a trade with the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday, acquirng catcher Carlos Perez in exchange for infielder Ryan Schimpf. Perez, 27, owns a .224/.267/.332 slash line in 184 games with the Angels over the last three seasons, but played just 11 big league games with L.A. in 2017. He was designated for assignment when the Angels added Shohei Ohtani to the Opening Day roster.
Perez will join the Braves in time for their series opener against the Washington Nationals on Monday and figures to serve as Atlanta’s third catcher for the time being with Flowers on the DL. If Suzuki is forced to join him there, the addition of Perez could loom larger.
Opening Day brings with it the renewed optimism of a brand new season. All 30 clubs get a blank slate and embark a journey they hope will lead them to October baseball.
The Atlanta Braves opened their 53rd season since relocating from Milwaukee prior to 1966. That means they’ve trotted out 53 Opening Day lineups, with a host of names rotating on an annual basis.
Some of these men are synonymous with Braves baseball. Others require a much sharper mind to recall their time in Atlanta.
Catcher (27 different players)
Despite having two of the best catchers in franchise history play for Atlanta, the Braves have still seen some serious turnover behind the plate as well. In fact, six different men have started at catcher on Opening Day in the last six years alone. Tyler Flowers kept it from being seven is as many years, but his injury forced Kurt Suzuki into action in the second inning.
Inaugural season: In 1966, Joe Torre became the first man to crouch behind the plate for the Atlanta club. He went on to a great career as a player and even more success as a Hall of Fame Manager.
Most OD starts at catcher: Javy Lopez (7) Brian McCann (7) Joe Torre (4) Biff Pocoroba (4) Bruce Benedict (4)
Did you know: Dale Murphy was Atlanta’s Opening Day catcher in 1979. That’s the same year he’d transition out from behind the plate permanently at the behest of Hall of Fame skipper Bobby Cox.
1st Base (28 different players)
Freddie Freeman made his eighth consecutive Opening Day start for Atlanta, the most in franchise history at the position. Prior to that, Atlanta had 11 different 1B in a 12-year span from 1999-2010.
Inaugural season: Lee Thomas was a former All-Star slugger with the Boston Red Sox, but his stay in Atlanta was brief. It lasted just 39 games before he was traded away. Thomas went on to a successful second career as a front office executive and was the general manager of the 1993 Phillies team which beat a 104-win Atlanta team in the NCLS that season.
Most OD starts at first base: Freddie Freeman (8), Chris Chambliss (5), Fred McGriff (4), Orlando Cepeda (4)
Did you know: Dale Murphy was Atlanta’s Opening Day first baseman in 1978. Though he was still primarily a catcher, the Braves were looking for ways to get his bat in the lineup. Throw in all three outfield spots and Murphy started at five different positions in his career on Opening Day for the Braves.
2nd Base (23 different players)
Glenn Hubbard is the standard bearer for Opening Day at the keystone position in Atlanta. He started seven straight from 1981-1987 and eight overall. Ozzie Albies, who just turned 21 years old in January, just became the 23rd different second baseman to start a season opener for Atlanta and the youngest ever to do so.
Inaugural season: Frank Bolling was the first second baseman in Atlanta history. The two-time All-Star and 1958 Gold Glove Award winner retired after that 1966 season.
Most OD starts at second base: Hubbard (8), Lemke (5), Giles (5), Millan (5), Uggla (4)
Did you know: Davey Johnson went on to a long managerial career, but in 1973 he was Atlanta’s Opening Day second basemen and went on to sock 43 home runs, a franchise record for the position. He was one of three Braves teammates to eclipse 40 home runs that season. Hank Aaron and Darrell Evans were the others.
3rd Base (20 different players)
When it comes to the hot corner, no man in Atlanta history started more games at the position than the Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. He got the Opening Day call a dozen times and would have been far more had he not missed the first few games in 1996 and later moved to left field for a three-year stretch from 2002-2004. That contuity helped make third base one of the positions with the least amount of turnover. Ryan Flaherty joined the Opening Day club in 2018.
Inaugural season: Eddie Mathews became the only man in team history to play for Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. This was his final season with the Braves. He holds the franchise record for Opening Day starts at third base, appearing there for 15 consecutive seasons from 1952-1966.
Most OD starts at third base: Chipper Jones (12), Bob Horner (7), Clete Boyer (5), Terry Pendleton (4)
Did you know: Third base belonged to Ron Gant on Opening Day in 1989. It was a position he’d never played in the minors and only done so sparingly during his rookie season the year prior. It did not go particularly well for Gant at the hot corner. He was demoted to A-ball at midseason in order to learn to play the outfield. That move paid off. He went on to become an All-Star outfielder and two-time member of the 30 home run, 30 stolen base club.
Shortstop (22 different players)
The Braves have enjoyed pretty regular play their Opening Day shortstops, despite some turnover in recent years. Dansby Swanson is hoping to cement his status at the position after making his second consecutive season-opening start there.
Inaugural season: Denis Menke was Atlanta’s first Opening Day shortstop. A versatile infielder who enjoyed a 13-year career, Menke spent just two years in Atlanta before being traded to the Astros in 1967. In Houston, Menke moved to second base and filled in for an injured Joe Morgan in 1968. He moved back to back to shortstop, becoming a two-time All-Star for the Astros. He and Morgan were then traded to the Reds prior to the 1972 season as the Big Red Machine was being assembled in Cincinnati.
Most OD starts in shortstop: Rafael Ramirez (6), Jeff Blauser (6), Rafael Furcal (5)
Did you know: Certainly not the biggest name, but one of the more popular men to earn an Opening Day start at shortstop was the light-hitting Rafael Belliard. He came over from the Pirates and earned the season-opening starts in 1991 and 1992. Sliding into a reserve role for the six seasons that followed, Belliard broke a decade-long home run drought with a two-run shot off Brian Bohanon of the Mets on September 26, 1997.
Left Field (35 different players)
If there is any one position that has become a revolving door in recent years, left field may be the place. While the trend won’t end this season, it could find an everyday guy filling the void sooner than later. Top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. won’t be the guy to take over on Opening Day, but his arrival is nigh. Preston Tucker got the nod on Opening Day 2018.
Inaugural season: Rico Carty was one of the team’s first dynamic Latin American ballplayers. Though injuries kept him from potential Hall of Fame caliber career, Carty made the most of what playing time he got. He won the National League batting title in 1970 and set the Atlanta record with a 31-game hitting streak, later surpassed by Dan Uggla in 2011.
Most OD starts in left field: Ryan Klesko (4), Ralph Garr (4), Dale Murphy (3), Chipper Jones (3)
Did you know: When the Braves won those 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, they employed nine different Opening Day left fielders, and that’s with Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones making seven of those starts. Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders got the title streak started in the worst-to-first year of 1991.
Center Field (26 different players)
The Braves sent Ender Inciarte into the middle pasture again to open 2018. He patrols it well. A two-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, Inciarte has carved out a spot at the top of the order as well. Last year, he became the first Braves player since Marquis Grissom in 1996 to record a 200-hit season.
Inaugural season: Felipe Alou came to Atlanta and immediately enjoyed the best season of his career in 1966. He batted .327, led the NL with 218 hits and belted a career-high 31 home runs. A three-time All-Star, Alou went on a to a lengthy managerial career after his playing days were done.
Most OD starts in center field: Andruw Jones (10), Dale Murphy (5)
Did you know: No one held down center field better and for longer than Andruw Jones. He took over full-time in 1998, following the departure of one-year rental Kenny Lofton. Over the next decade, Jones won 10 consecutive gold glove awards and established himself as one of the best defensive players in baseball history.
Right Field (19 different players)
The veteran Nick Markakis made his fourth straight Opening Day start in right field for the Braves. He follows a long line of notable right fielders. MVP’s, a Rookie of the Year, Gold Glovers, Silver Sluggers and even Hall of Fame players have suited up at the position for Atlanta. He celebrated the occasion by belting a game-winning three-run homer against Philadelphia, the first walk-off home run of his 13-year career.
Inaugural season: Who better to christen right field and the new ballpark in general than the future home run king, Hank Aaron. He arrived in Atlanta and tied his career-high with 44 home runs in that 1966 season.
Most OD starts in right field: Hank Aaron (8), David Justice (6), Jason Heyward (5), Claudell Washington (5)
Did you know: Hank Aaron also holds the franchise record for most starts at the position, totaling 16 dating back to the Milwaukee days. He made eight consecutive Opening Day starts in right field before sliding over to left, where he was playing when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in April of 1974.
Starting pitcher (19 different players)
Julio Teheran is joined elite company in the franchise’s history as he made his fifth consecutive Opening Day start. He became one of just four pitchers to start at least five season openers and the first in Atlanta history to do so five straight years.
Inaugural season: Tony Cloninger was on the mound when the Braves opened their time in Atlanta. It was April 12, 1966 and Cloninger pitched a 13-inning complete game and struck out 12 batters, but lost to the Pirates by a 3-2 score in the first game in Atlanta history.
Most OD starts: Greg Maddux (8), Phil Niekro (8), Rick Mahler (5), Julio Teheran (4), John Smoltz (4)
Did you know: That franchise history Teheran just made dates all the way back to Milwaukee and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. The lefty made six consecutive opening day starts from 1957-1962. Spahn still holds the franchise record of 10 season opening starting assignments.
Ronald Acuña Jr. is still getting used to all the hype. He just spent his first big league spring training under the proverbial microscope, heralded not only as the top prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization but all of baseball.
It’s an impressive distinction that brings with it incredible expectations.
Heading into his age 20 season, Acuña is perhaps just weeks away from making his major league debut. That will come after a well-publicized layover in Triple-A Gwinnett. Yes, his ascension to Atlanta is only a matter of time.
But this time a year ago, who would have thought it possible?
To be honest, even Acuña was surprised.
“It’s amazing and I’m definitely not taking it for granted,” Acuña said through team translor Franco Garcia. “I never imagined that it would all happen this quickly.
“It’s like I’ve said before, I always believed in myself that I could become something and that I could do something with myself as a baseball player. I always had confidence in that, but I never thought it would all happen this quickly. It’s very exciting.”
The Braves strapped a rocket to his back in 2017 and Acuña went from a player with only 40 games of experience above rookie ball to one who probably deserved a September call-up.
He posted a .325/.374/.522 slash line while belting 21 homers and stealing 44 bases in 139 games. Then he went to the Arizona Fall League and brought home MVP honors.
That reign of terror across three levels of the minor leagues earned Acuña his top prospect status and catapulted him into the national spotlight as one of the top young players in baseball.
That’s a far cry from last spring, when he was just hoping to have a full, healthy year. Acuña suffered a thumb injury that robbed him of three months’ worth of playing time with Rome in 2016. He returned in time for the playoffs and helped the club win the South Atlantic League title.
To make up for the lost time, Acuña shipped off across the Pacific and turned heads in the Australian Baseball League that winter. Needless to say, he was a big hit in the Outback and that was just the beginning of the buzz that now surrounds this five-tool talent.
Acuña got the chance to show out last spring and impressed Braves manager Brian Snitker, who said he’d have been temped to bring the young outfielder north with the big league club if given the chance.
That said, Acuña still had plenty of developing to do in all facets of the game in 2017.
“I think there’s a big difference between last year and this year,” Acuña said when asked of his growth over the past year. “I would say last year I hadn’t matured as much and wasn’t as mature as I was going into this spring training. This year, I just knew what I wanted to focus on and I knew what I wanted to work on.”
Heady stuff, but this is an ultra-talented player who climbed the minor league ladder in what felt like a fortnight and got better at every stop along the way. With his skills on display and his confidence building from experience, Acuña’s name began to receive regular mention across the industry.
Other than the one injury setback, Acuña hasn’t been forced to wait very long in his minor league career. The rapid promotions and ensuing success has given little reason to believe he has much of anything left to prove in the minor leagues.
But lessons come in all shapes and sizes.
Acuña’s current learning experience comes courtesy of the business of baseball. He’ll spend some time back in Triple-A. The club has cited development and a little bit of seasoning, but two weeks of minor league time buys the Braves an extra year of contractual control with Acuña down the line.
That decision, however, is out of Acuña’s hands. And it’s already been made.
To his credit, he’s seemingly moved on after being reassigned to minor league camp last week despite torching the Grapefruit League in his time with the big league club this spring. It certainly hasn’t affected his confidence, of which he has a seemingly endless supply. Acuña has instead turned his focus to doing any and everything he can at whatever level he may be playing. That outlook shows a considerable amount of that aforementioned maturity.
It can also be chalked up to another, equally important quality.
“Patience really,” credits Acuña. “I preached that about last spring training and the same could be said for this one as well. Being sent down, I’m trying to just practice patience and just anxiously waiting for the opportunity in the big leagues.”
That sounds great, but nobody likes waiting. Acuña is no different. He’s put in the work. He’s put up the numbers. Now he’s simply playing the waiting game.
And that’s a game he’s determined to win.
“I’m not feeling impatient at all to be honest, and I don’t think I’ll feel that way,” said Acuña. “It’s just not the right moment right now and that’s just part of the business.
“Baseball is a business and I understand that. There’s a lot of things that go into these decisions. All I can do is go down to Gwinnett, give my best effort and hope to get the call as soon as possible.”
Gwinnett opens the season with a six-game road trip before coming home for the second weekend in April. That’s just a couple of days prior to the April 14th date that Braves could feasibly summon Acuña to the majors while still gaining that coveted seventh year of contractual control.
Atlanta will return home to host the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday, April 16, and all signs seem to point to the impending arrival of a certain top prospect, though the team has yet to specify a timetable.
Who knows, Acuña may never have to fully unpack his suitcase before arriving at SunTrust Park.
His phone should be ringing sooner than later.
When the Houston Astros won the World Series last October, Preston Tucker was not in uniform. He’d already spent the entire 2017 season waiting for a call that never came.
His time in Houston came to an end not long after.
Tucker was designated for assignment in December, and the Atlanta Braves decided to take a flyer on an outfielder with some power potential. His new club is hoping Tucker has a bigger role to play in 2018 and perhaps beyond.
Tucker, 27, served his time last season with Triple-A Fresno. He swatted 24 home runs and drove in 96 runs, but a crowded outfield kept him on the outside looking in with Houston.
Settling in with Atlanta this spring, Tucker is aiming to find his way back to the big leagues to stay. That’s a chance he’s getting with the Braves. Last winter he was recovering from shoulder surgery which adversely affected his bid to make the Astros big league roster.
Now healthy, Tucker is out to prove he belongs.
“I think I’m getting a lot of at-bats and that’s a good thing,” said Tucker. “They want to take a good look at me and, you know, I’m still trying to work on timing, approach and all that stuff, but right now I’m just trying to keep it simple and see the ball and put it in play and do some damage.”
Opportunity is a beautiful thing; Tucker’s is unique. His bid to make Atlanta’s opening day roster was enhanced when the Braves reassigned top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. to minor league camp. Though Acuña is unlikely to remain in Triple-A for long, Tucker gets at least a couple of weeks to show he’s capable of contributing.
That’s a couple of weeks more than he got last season.
While some of his new teammates spent their winter making changes and reinventing their swings, Tucker was just happy to have a normal offseason. With that going for him, Tucker focused on turning good habits and routine at the plate into the desired results.
“Not so much reinventing, just trying to find some consistency,” said Tucker. “Finding the right swing path and being able to do it not only in BP and all of those things, but to do it against some of the best pitchers in the game. Because that’s the biggest difference.”
Though he showed flashes of power with 13 homers in 300 at-bats during his rookie season of 2015, Tucker struggled to find success in his second go-around. He was optioned to the minors in May and came back up July, but that’s when shoulder issues cropped up. Tucker finished the season batting just .164 in 48 games in 2016.
All of that big league time, both highs and lows, as well as the setbacks that followed have only served to provide valuable experience for Tucker.
“You can repeat the same thing in the cage all day and when you go out and have to face the No. 1 starter, sometimes you have to go back to square one.” Tucker said of his current mindset. “I try to do the little things right and keep my approach simple. I think so far I’m staying on that track and I’m going to try to do that as long as I can.”
Baseball runs in the family for Tucker, whose younger brother Kyle is one of Houston’s top prospects. About the time one Tucker was debuting in the majors, the Astros were selecting the other with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft.
The elder Tucker enjoyed a storied career at the University of Florida, where he set multiple school records for the Gators, including hits, doubles and RBI, while finishing second in career home runs.
The former first baseman moved to the outfield during his junior year in Gainesville and has seen little time at his old position professionally, though he could play there in a pinch. With All-Star Freddie Freeman entrenched, the corner outfield spots are the ticket to playing time for Tucker in Atlanta. He’s open to either.
“I played right up until Triple-A, before I got called up, but then they moved me to left as soon as I got up in the big leagues,” said Tucker. “So, I do have experience playing a little bit of both.
“I’ve probably played 20-30 games in the big leagues in right, but most of my time has been out there in left. Last year I kind of split 50-50, so I feel comfortable with both.”
It’s been a good spring for Tucker, who heads into the final weekend of Grapefruit League play slashing .386/.460/.591 with 10 RBI in 20 games. He’s drawn six walks and struck out just four times.
Tucker is now with a team that provides at least a fighting chance to carve out some playing time. A change of scenery and new opportunity are both welcomed developments. Tucker is joining a team with young, hungry talent that is hoping to make its mark sooner than later. And he’s already seen firsthand in Houston what a club that grows together can do.
“It’s an awesome group of guys,” said Tucker. ”A lot of the guys have played together before or played against each other. I think we’re meshing pretty well and, you know, I think that the team has been swinging it and we’re throwing the ball well. I think when you have that chemistry you’re going to do that pretty often.”
The Braves are providing Tucker with a chance to play. The rest is up to him.
It was a move that most expected when spring training began, but the Atlanta Braves made it official on Monday when they reassigned top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. to minor league camp. This ended any speculation that the talented outfielder would make the big league team to start the season.
Two simple words will become the focus of the Braves’ decision to send Acuña down.
Unfortunately, this issue and the ensuing debate are nothing new for Major League Baseball. Acuña isn’t the first and is unlikely to be the last player to go through such a situation. He’s simply the latest.
Just ask Chicago Cubs superstar Kris Bryant. He tore up the Cactus League in 2015, but the Cubs opted to send him to Triple-A following a torrid spring training rather than start his service time clock on opening day. Chicago did this because rules state that a player must spend 172 of a possible 187 days on the big league roster in order to be credited with a full year of service.
The club maintains control of a player for his first six seasons, but service time does not round up. That means that roughly two weeks in the minor leagues can create a loophole which could keep a player from accruing the six full years of service time needed to qualify for free agency, thus giving the team a seventh year of control under arbitration.
The Braves will need to keep Acuña in Triple-A Gwinnett for 16 days in order to gain the additional year of team control. That would put the talented outfielder on target to be called up no earlier than April 14.
Sounds like smart business for a club to be mindful of when managing its assets, but the optics of such a move have come under fire by players, agents and even fans in recent years. Though teams are perfectly within their rights to send a player down with an obvious eye on service time, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance for Bryant and Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco in 2015. Both men started in the minors before being called up after the date which would preclude them from gaining the necessary service time to become free agents after their sixth season.
This is where we find Acuña in 2018.
Atlanta has a long-term building block on its hands here. He’s a potential franchise cornerstone. He’s the top prospect in baseball. In fact, he’s the best prospect the Braves have seen since Andruw Jones over two decades ago.
That’s something new general manager Alex Anthopoulos is well aware of.
“We’re just hoping to give him an opportunity to play and show us what he can do,” Anthopouos told me when spring training began. “Everyone I’ve talked to in the organization is very high on him and very optimistic he’s going to do great things.
“You don’t want to hype him, but you also understand he’s as good a prospect as anyone’s talked about in this organization. We’re not going to be able to slow that down or stop it. The hope and the key for us is that we don’t put too many expectations on him when he does get up there, that he’s not coming in to save the team or save the season.”
It’s going to be hard to slow down the hype train that Acuña has become.
As a 19-year-old, he tore through three levels of the minor leagues and became the top prospect in the game for virtually every outlet that ranks such things. Acuña batted .325 with 31 doubles, 21 homers, 82 RBI, 88 runs scored and 44 stolen bases in 139 games between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. All of that was en route to being named Braves minor league player of the year.
If that wasn’t enough, he torched the Arizona Fall League as an encore, winning MVP honors and the league’s home run crown. Then Acuña came to spring training this February and picked up right where he left off, leading the Grapefruit League with a .432 average while hitting four home runs in 52 plate appearances.
Sure, spring training statistics are hardly the definitive measuring stick, but Acuña is doing all of this at the age of 20. And he’s making it look easy. It’s understandable a player of Acuña’s talent would set off a firestorm of reaction to a move that, at least on the surface, would be standard operating procedure for many, if not most, clubs faced with a similar situation.
Typically, a club’s decision on a talent being ready for the next level is subjective, but Acuña would appear to defy conventional wisdom. He’s a five-tool player who has gotten better and better at each level he’s played. And he’s done so despite the competition at each level doing the same. Following what figures to be a brief detour, Acuña’s final destination is Atlanta, where the Braves are hoping he’ll be a fixture for years to come, alongside the likes of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Ender Inciarte and a host of others.
On one hand, people will say “it’s just two weeks.” On the other hand, it’s the optics of the move that draws criticism. It sends a mixed message at best. The club wouldn’t be doing its due diligence if it did not pursue the extra year of control, but the player gets stuck in a situation that ideally should not exist. However unpopular to some, this was a business decision that is within a team’s rights in a system that was collectively bargained. Yes, it’s an imperfect system, but it’s the one that’s in place.
We’ve seen it before.
Bryant went through all of this in 2015. He proceeded to win the rookie of the year award that season and the MVP award a year later. The MLBPA couldn’t have asked for a bigger, better poster boy for the service time issue heading into the last collective bargaining agreement, yet the issue wasn’t fought for. At least not enough to affect change. That’s puzzling.
Bryant’s grievance did not stem the tide three years ago. In order for that to have any chance of happening, the union will have to make the early season service time manipulation of top prospects a hot button issue when negotiating the next CBA three years from now. Nothing seems likely to change on this front before that time, though Acuña and his representatives could likewise choose to file a grievance. No indication has been given that they plan to do so, however.
That said, there is another component in the Acuña equation. Atlanta’s aggressive approach with the development of some of its prospects has been subject to some criticism, particularly as it comes to shortstop Dansby Swanson. He rocketed to the major leagues after roughly one calendar year in the minors and dealt with his fair share of growing pains during his first full season. Now Swanson finds himself looking to rebound and get his career on track.
While there are some obvious differences in the case of these two young Braves players, Acuña had just 42 games above rookie ball to his credit coming into 2017 but was still aggressively promoted through the minors last season. Atlanta’s current front office, spearheaded by Anthopoulos, may look to take a more measured approach to things when it comes to challenging their minor leaguers with frequent and sometimes rapid promotions. That remains to be seen.
Perhaps if the Braves were in a different situation, like they were with Jason Heyward in 2010, the outcome might be different. Just like Acuña, Heyward was 20 years old at the time and was widely regarded as the top prospect in baseball. He’d played just three games at Triple-A in 2009, but Atlanta was in a better position to contend and placed Heyward on the opening roster in 2010. The Braves were coming off an 86-win season and made the playoffs with Heyward’s help in 2010. This time around with Acuña, the team is in the midst of a prolonged rebuild and coming off a 72-win season.
The sense of urgency is simply not the same when weighed against the potential benefit of an extra year of contractual control, especially when the team can call upon Acuña after a short while. Again, the collectively bargained system created that loophole.
A growing trend in the game has been to sign young players to extensions which buy out the arbitration years and potentially a year or two of free agency. The team gains payroll stability in exchange for offering the player some financial security. Of course, the Braves never reached a long term extension with Heyward and instead trading him to the Cardinals in his free agent walk year. Would an extra year of team control changed that situation or the trade return? Possibly.
But that’s water under the proverbial bridge.
If Acuña plays up to his tremendous potential, there is little doubt the team would seek to explore an extension. Time will tell just how this service time decision might impact those prospective talks down the line.
In reality, it appears Acuña has little if anything left to prove in the minors. There’s not a reputable talent evaluator out there who’s seen him play that could make a convincing case to the contrary. While development may also be mentioned as factor, the only thing left for Acuña to do is to face the best competition, and that can only be found in one place. The major leagues, a place he’ll end up sooner than later.
Regardless, Acuña will open the season with the new-look Gwinnett Stripers on April 6, giving him at least 8-10 games to terrorize the International League yet again. While April 14 is the earliest date the Braves could promote Acuña and net the extra year of control, the club is facing the Cubs at Wrigley Field that weekend. Atlanta could choose to call him up for the Monday, April 16, game against the Phillies at SunTrust Park. That would give them a couple of extra days to insure the rule is satisfied. Whatever the case, it seems unlikely he’d spend any extended time in the minors. However, no official timetable for a call-up has been set.
So, as opening day approaches, and fans find themselves asking: “Why is a player as talented as Ronald Acuña heading to the minor leagues?”
Two words. Service time.
The Atlanta Braves have been building for the future over the past three years. While much of the focus has been on the glut of pitching prospects assembled in the minor leagues, there are more than a few hitters making a name for themselves as well.
One such man is slugging third baseman Austin Riley.
A 20-year-old Mississippi native, Riley got his first taste of major league camp this spring. Armed with prodigious power, he turned in consecutive 20-homer campaigns and the team is hopeful that Riley could answer the third base question that has plagued Atlanta since the retirement of Chipper Jones in 2012.
While no one is expecting him to replicate Jones’ lofty numbers, Riley’s bat could make an impact in the middle of the order for years to come. For now though, it’s been all about getting comfortable in his surroundings this spring and spending time around the big leaguers.
“It’s been fun just being around the guys, the veteran guys really,” said Riley. “I’m just taking it all in. Chipper’s been in town. Fred McGriff is always around. It’s kind of cool to experience it all and I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”
The presence of Jones at Braves spring training is always of particular interest for both the fans and players alike. Many of the younger generation of players grew up watching him play for nearly two decades in Atlanta. Now they get a chance to don the same uniform and pick the brain of a Hall of Famer.
“He’s been around quite a bit, and I spent some time with him for sure,” said Riley of his time with Jones. “Really he’s just focusing on trying to develop my game as much as he can.”
That development goes beyond simple cage tips, fielding pointers and sage advice. Jones was one of the most cerebral hitters in the game. It’s one of the many reasons he earned a place in Cooperstown. That mental makeup and the ability to think along with the opposing pitcher is something Jones is hoping to impart to Riley and other young hitters.
“We talked about the game inside the game,” said Riley. “That’s the biggest thing that’s clicked for me with him is that there’s the game and then there’s the game with the pitcher. I tried to pick his brain and what he’s trying to do with the at-bat and that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve taken with advice from him.”
Already this spring, Riley has shown glimpses of the light-tower power that’s helped him climb the prospect hot sheets. He belted a pair of home runs among his five hits before being reassigned to minor league camp this week. Though Riley batted just .208 and struck out 10 times in 24 at-bats this spring, his growth as an all-around player over the past three seasons is evident.
Riley opened 2017 with High-A Florida and was promoted to Double-A in July. He closed out the year with a .315/.389/.511 slash line and eight home runs in 48 games with Mississippi. Riley followed that up with another power display in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .300 with six home runs, just one off Ronald Acuña’s league-leading total. Even more encouraging from Riley’s overall numbers, his walk rate improved and his strikeout rate dropped from his 2016 season with Low-A Rome.
As the competition has gotten better, so has Riley. With the physical skills already on display, he is hoping this spring will be the kind of learning experience that will prove beneficial in other ways.
“Really just getting that feel of being around everybody and trying to get that big league experience, but you know at the same time I’m just trying to be the best that I can and get better,” said Riley of his spring so far.
“I’ve got some more time in the minor leagues for sure, so I’m really just trying to take everything in, being all-ears to what everyone says and just enjoy it as much as I can.”
Though Riley’s bat gets most of the the attention, he’s spent plenty of time trying to improve in every facet of the game. Riley slimmed down a touch over the winter and has been working hard to develop into a solid defensive third baseman.
The former high school pitcher has the arm, but improving his footwork and range have been top priorities. He cut the errors down from 30 in 335 chances in 2016 to 20 in 326 chances last season.
“You don’t want to be a liability out there on the field, so you’ve got to take just as much pride in defense as you do hitting,” said Riley.
He got a little help in that department this spring. Spending a month in big league camp meant that Riley got a chance to work with one of the top fielding gurus in the game.
“Ron Washington has been tremendous,” said Riley of the Atlanta infield coach. “The first couple of days I worked with him I was like, ‘Wow, there’s so many things that I didn’t know.’ Whether it’s position with the glove, coming through the ball, whatever it might be, I have that much more room to improve. That’s the thing that’s going to make me that much better on defense.”
The extra time spent at the hot corner will only make Riley a better player and raise his prospect stock. The bat may take him to the big leagues one day, but the glove could definitely help him stay.
It will probably 2019 before Riley finds his way to SunTrust Park. Expect him to return to Mississippi for an encore to open the season. But if last year’s success is any indication, it may not be long until Riley is knocking on the door in Triple-A Gwinnett.
The Atlanta Braves are hoping homegrown pitching will be one of the key ingredients in the recipe for long-term success. Now, four years into a rebuild, they find their top starting pitcher is undergoing his own rebuild of sorts.
And for Julio Teheran, it all starts with one pitch. The slider.
After a challenging 2017, Teheran aiming to prove he’s still front and center in Atlanta’s plans. To do that, Teheran is going to have to find a way to get back to the All-Star form he displayed two seasons ago. And to do that, he retraced his steps.
Teheran turned to his uncle, Miguel Teheran, to help reclaim a pitch that is critical to arsenal. The two worked together this winter to make improvements to the slider. With his duties every fifth day on hold, the time was right to make changes.
“During the season he watched me a couple of times,” said Teheran of his longtime mentor. “Obviously, he made some calls to me, but it wasn’t like I was going to do something during the season. We spent a lot of time in the offseason working together and I think a lot of things are better.”
Teheran reflected on the difference between his All-Star campaign of 2016 and the roller coaster ride that followed. He realized his breaking ball was the difference maker.
“My slider wasn’t like it was the year before,” said Teheran. “My command wasn’t the best at the beginning and I kind of worked during the season a little bit, but I knew that the season wasn’t the time to work on making the adjustment.”
Turns out the winter came at a good time. Despite working with Braves pitching coach Chuck Hernandez between starts for months, Teheran was unable to truly right the ship until later in the season.
“I think it’s easier in the offseason because you don’t have a game and you don’t have to prove what you’ve been working on,” said Teheran. “You just need time to work and try to fix something and then by the time the game comes in spring training, you’ve got everything fixed and it’s something that you don’t even think about.”
According to FanGraphs, Teheran threw his slider just 19 percent of the time last season. That represented a career-low rate and was nearly 7 percent lower than 2016, when he enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career. Losing confidence in that pitch led to an increased reliance on his fastball and that in turn gave hitters the ability to adjust their expectations when it came to Teheran’s offerings.
With his uncle’s assistance, Teheran worked to implement some necessary pitch corrections. Rather than changing his slider altogether, he said simply loosening the grip provided the improved movement he was searching for.
The results received some immediate recognition from batterymate Tyler Flowers.
“When I threw my first bullpen, I threw with Flowers and he said the slider looks different,” said Teheran. “I hadn’t even told him that I was working on it and he told me that it’s looks like the slider two years ago. That’s when I told him that I was working on it.”
Armed with some early returns this spring and feedback that supported his efforts to improve the slider over the winter, Teheran feels much more confident about his ability to generate the results he’d become accustomed to over the prior four seasons.
“The slider is the pitch that I need,” he said. “When I don’t have my slider, it’s like a different game.”
One of the big reasons why the right adjustments may have taken longer to identify was the fact that Teheran appeared to be two different pitchers at times.
Something was definitely off.
One glance at Teheran’s home-road splits revealed a truly bizarre set of circumstances. In roughly the same number of innings pitched, his season careened out of control at home yet remained closer to his career norms on the road.
- Home (17 GS): 3-10, 5.86 ERA with 17 HR allowed in 93.2 IP
- Road (15 GS): 8-3, 3.14 ERA with 14 HR allowed in 94.2 IP
Teheran’s new home ballpark didn’t exactly greet him with open arms. Following a solid debut performance in the SunTrust Park opener, he allowed 13 home runs over his next eight outings there and posted a 7.36 ERA during the dozen home starts that followed between April and August.
On a brighter note, Teheran seemed to be finding his way in September. That was due, at least in part, to beginning to recapture the feel for his slider. He posted a 2.81 ERA with just two homers allowed over 25.2 IP in his final four home starts.
Teheran got his first taste of the major leagues in 2011. Once the top pitching prospect in the game, he’s since become the mainstay of the Atlanta starting rotation. Now he enters his sixth full season and is scheduled to make his fifth opening day start.
It’s not like Teheran is a true elder statesman either. He just turned 27 years old, but he looks forward to the opportunity to lead the Braves starting five again this season. It’s a group that includes many young arms and up and coming prospects hoping to make their mark in 2018. Many of them are in big league camp this spring as well.
“It’s fun to be the guy that’s in front of the rotation, especially in a young group,” he said. “It’s guys you’ve been watching and they’re not even that far from you. We’re like three years difference and two years difference.
“I know they’ve been watching what I’ve been doing, and I try to motivate. We’re here working together to get a starting rotation and it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a lot of competition this spring and I’m excited to see who’s going to be in our rotation.”