Braves star prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. undaunted by return to minors

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.

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