Braves phenom Ronald Acuña to begin season in minors

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.

Service time.

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.



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