Acuna's breakout for Braves leads to MiLBY

No. 6 overall prospect climbed three levels as 19-year-old in 2017

Ronald Acuna led the Minor Leagues with 181 hits over 139 games this past season. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | October 30, 2017 10:00 AM

Andruw Jones has made a habit of listening to Bobby Cox. The pair enjoyed two National League pennants, nine division titles and five 100-win seasons together with Atlanta in the 1990s and 2000s. Now special assistants for the Braves, they both stay in tune with the young talent in the organization.

So, when Jones got a call from his former manager during Spring Training in 2016, asking him to check out an 18-year-old outfielder, he didn't need much prodding.

"When Bobby Cox tells you something, you have to go look," Jones said. "To be part of the Braves farm system, it's my pleasure to go see these guys and help when I can. But with him, I can't wait to see where he goes and what kind of Major Leaguer he'll be."

That player is Ronald Acuna, who's followed Jones' trajectory through the Minor Leagues almost exactly.

The 19-year-old outfielder -- 2017 MiLBY winner for Breakout Prospect of the Year -- was the talk of the Minors all year as he climbed from Class A Advanced Florida to Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. He was the youngest player in both the Southern and International leagues, yet he seemed to only get better as time went on. He hit .287/.336/.478 with three homers and 14 steals in 28 games at Florida and improved by batting .326/.374/.520 with nine homers and 19 steals in 57 games at Mississippi. But he saved his best for last with a .344/.393/.548 line, nine homers and 11 steals in 54 games at the Minors' highest level.

Bo Bichette, Lansing/Dunedin

The Blue Jays grabbed Bichette with the 66th overall pick in 2016. After his first full season, he's now the No. 25 overall prospect in the game. He became the first teenager since 1963 to win the Minor League batting title, posting a .362 average over 110 games in the Midwest and Florida State Leagues. He also showed solid power with 14 homers and some speed with 22 stolen bases. The whole package earned him honors as Midwest League MVP and Prospect of the Year as well as a spot at the Futures Game in Miami -- not a bad start for a player passed over 65 times in the Draft. Voting results »

Acuna, who signed for just $100,000 out of Venezuela in July 2014, became MLB.com's No. 6 overall prospect after beginning 2017 outside the top 100. He's risen past first-rounders Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson to become the top prospect in the Braves system -- he started 2017 at the No. 8 spot.

Oh, and he won't turn 20 until Dec.18.

"Age doesn't mean a thing," said Braves director of player development Dave Trembley. "The special ones don't come along that often, so we have to treat them a little differently. For guys like Ronnie, once they have success, we want to put them right away into a situation where they'll be challenged. That doesn't work for everyone. For the special ones, it does."

There were signs that Acuna could be a breakout candidate earlier than 2017, but a different kind of break held off that surge until this summer.

The Braves didn't shy away from sending Acuna stateside early in his career. He split his age-17 season between the Gulf Coast League and Rookie-level Danville, where he showed good patience (.380 on-base percentage) and impressive speed (16 steals) over 55 games. That put him on the map as he entered the following season as the No. 23 prospect in the system. He was moved aggressively again as an 18-year-old to Class A Rome to begin 2016 -- right after Cox first pointed him out to Jones -- and took off again, hitting .300 with 12 steals in 30 games, before a thumb injury on May 9 knocked him out until late August.

"It was a tough time for me, not being able to compete and play every game," Acuna said this week through Arizona Fall League pitching coach Yoel Monzon. "But it was an opportunity for me to continue working. When the opportunity came, I wanted to be ready. ... I had to pay attention to more to details, when I wasn't playing."

Acuna played a handful more games with Rome before the season ended, but he really got a chance to show off what he'd learned during a trip to the Australian Baseball League to make up for the lost at-bats. Playing in 20 games for Melbourne, the right-handed slugger hit .375/.446/.556 with two homers and 13 steals. It was a small sample against low-level winter ball foes, but the performance hinted he was ready to do more than just show off his health in 2017.

The Braves upped the challenge by getting him 31 plate appearances in 13 games on the Major League side during Spring Training, and he held his own, going 8-for-27 (.296). As much as anything, the move gave Acuna an idea of just how close he might be.

2017 MiLBYs

"These guys at that age, they think they're so far away," Trembley said. "They don't understand until they're in the situation just how quickly they can move. And it's the little things, the attention to detail, that helps them move even quicker. Let them see how it's done, and Acuna's very observant, so it was great for him."

Acuna kept his eyes open whenever he was in the Major League clubhouse, especially as the only teenager in the room.

"It was a really good experience because one of the most important things was seeing Major Leaguers make their adjustments quicker," Acuna said. "At some point, it feels good just to be over there, but I was really paying attention to how fast they see things and make adjustments. That was big for me."

Acuna had to put those lessons to the test quickly. Upon breaking camp with Florida, he was told he wouldn't be with the Fire Frogs long, if he could show a basic aptitude for the Florida State League. He started slowly, hitting .230 through 15 games. Then he got to work.

"I was working with [Florida hitting coach] Carlos Mendez on my front foot. I was taking too much time to get my foot in place, so we tried tightening that up," he said. "I'm still working on getting my front foot down in time, but everything has gotten a lot smoother since then."

Acuna took off, batting .352/.410/.611 in his next 13 games and was promptly moved up to Double-A on May 9 for his next challenge. He hit a two-run homer in his first at-bat with the M-Braves. His average in the Southern League never dipped into the .200s, nor did his OPS go below .817. On July 13 -- four days after participating in the All-Star Futures Game -- Acuna made his Triple-A debut with Gwinnett. It took him two at-bats this time to homer at his new level.

"He never really got exposed," Trembley said. "Once he had success, we knew it was time to challenge him because we wanted him to keep getting better. He accepted that challenge every time."

Video: Gwinnett's Acuna hits first Triple-A homer

If this story of a Braves outfield prospect climbing the ladder quickly sounds familiar, it should. Jones, arguably the Braves' best Minor Leaguer ever, essentially wrote what would become Acuna's playbook in 1996, when he was 19. The right-handed slugger hit .339/.421/.652 with 34 homers and 30 steals in 116 games at Class A Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A that year. There was a little more power and a little less speed than Acuna, but in terms of both performance and hype, the parallels are uncanny.

Except for one difference. 

Jones made his Major League debut Aug. 15 that year and played a key role for an Atlanta team that made it all the way to the World Series. Acuna's season ended when Gwinnett's did. He continued to show his dedication by heading to the Braves' instructional league and his current place in the Arizona Fall League, but an outfield crowded by veterans Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp alongside perennial Gold Glove contender Ender Inciarte kept Acuna's season from reaching a similar pinnacle.

"People all around, even in the Majors, want to talk to me about Acuna," Jones said. "They held him back because he's not going to play every day. We want him to play as much as he can at that age. But there's Kemp and Markakis, and even though it's rebuilding, they've worked hard to be there and playing, too. We'll see what happens in Spring Training in 2018, but he'll be out there with them, trying to produce like he has."

Following his first look at Acuna in 2016, Jones tried to offer as much help as he could through his role as special assistant to baseball operations, a title also held by Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff. According to Acuna, their work initially focused on defense in 2016 but expanded to hitting mechanics this past season, and the younger outfielder saw the benefits immmediately.

"Basically, anytime he says anything, I know I need to pay attention," Acuna said. "He's played so many years in the big leagues, has so much advice that I try to listen whenever I can. Last year, he told me to work on stopping wrapping my bat and fixing the position of my top hand on the bat. That's helped me stay more through the ball, and that helped me a lot."

Tweet from @grantmcauley: Two #Braves teenage phenoms with eerily similar swings:Left: Andruw Jones, age 19Right: Ronald Acu��a, age 19 pic.twitter.com/JupGQnCAhd

"There's no better teacher than experience," Trembley said. "We can show you how to play, but they have to learn from watching and listening to people who have been there before. For Andruw to take an interest in Ronnie, that's helped him tremendously."

Jones knows the benefits personally.

"We text here and there," said the five-time All-Star. "I'll ask him how's the family, tell him to stay focused, little stuff. I still get messages like that from Ken Griffey Jr., and it brightens my day. 'Hey, I see what you're doing with the Braves. Keep it up.' Little things like that. He was my idol growing up and talking to him can still inspire me. I want to do that with Ronald."

But the goal isn't just to get a carbon copy of Jones' Minor League career. The Braves are looking to turn Acuna into another franchise cornerstone at the game's highest level, one to help get Atlanta back to the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s. For Acuna, that means just being himself.

"I'm basically preparing to be consistent every day," he said. "That's my goal, no matter where I go -- be the same player everywhere, be consistent. I'm working on that now in the Fall League and, hopefully, that will continue in the spring."

For Jones, that means letting Acuna be Acuna.

"There's only one Willie Mays. There's only Ken Griffey Jr. There's only one me, and there's only going to be one him," he said. "Yes, he shows similar potential, but he can only be one person. All I talk about with him is putting his own name out there. He came from Venezuela and I know it's rough out there, and he's almost made it to the Major Leagues. He's a great person, and that's where I start. Can we have similar acts? Yes, but it's going to take a little time."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More