Back in January, I took on the challenge of selecting the best Gwinnett players over the last 10 years (2010-19), the first full decade in team history. While it was satisfying to name the best players (and honorable mentions) at each position, one larger question remained. Who was the single greatest player to don a Gwinnett uniform in the 2010s?
We decided to let our fans choose, and created a Gwinnett Player of the Decade bracket (sponsored by Coolray Heating & Cooling) pitting 32 players against each other in five rounds of voting on our Twitter account, @GoStripers. Thousands of votes have been tabulated, and we’ve arrived at a Final Four: first baseman Freddie Freeman (2010, 2013, 2015, 2017), second baseman Ozzie Albies (2016-17), third baseman Austin Riley (2018-19), and outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. (2017-18).
How We Got Here
Not surprisingly, Major League success, name recognition, and prospect status mostly outweighed Triple-A achievements over the first three rounds of voting. This was most evident in the case of Ernesto Mejia, who earned a No. 1 seed thanks to a Gwinnett career record 59 home runs, two International League RBI titles (92 in 2012, 83 in 2013), and the 2012 IL Rookie of the Year award, but never reached the Majors. He was upset in the first round by Cody Martin, a No. 8 seed who appeared in 21 games with Atlanta in 2015.
Both of Gwinnett’s IL Batting Champions, Barbaro Canizares (.341 in 2010) and Jose Constanza (.314 in 2012), were first-round upsets as No. 2 seeds. Phil Gosselin, who posted the highest single-season batting average in Gwinnett history (.344 in 2014), also bowed out in the first round as a No. 2 seed. Andrew Albers, the best left-handed pitcher in Gwinnett history (12-3, 2.61 ERA in 2017), didn’t make it out of the first round despite a No. 3 seed. Stefan Gartrell, a No. 3 seed as well (54 homers and 180 RBIs over 313 games), suffered the same first-round fate as Albers.
Two other No. 1 seeds fell later in the bracket, with Adam Duvall (2019 IL Postseason All-Star, set Gwinnett single-season records with 32 homers, 93 RBIs, .602 slugging percentage, and .966 OPS) losing to Riley in the round of 16, and Julio Teheran (IL Most Valuable Pitcher and Rookie of the Year in 2011, went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA) falling to Albies in the round of eight.
While there were certainly some surprises along the way, there’s no question that the Final Four represents a who’s who of established Atlanta Braves stars (Freeman, Albies, Acuña Jr.) and one who is on the path to stardom soon (Riley).
Breaking Down the Final Four
Freddie Freeman (1) vs. Ozzie Albies (3)
Freeman’s Decade Stats: .326, 38 2B, 2 3B, 18 HR, 77 R, 91 RBI, 6 SB, .913 OPS, 253 TB in 131 games
Albies’ Decade Stats: .272, 32 2B, 11 3B, 11 HR, 94 R, 61 RBI, 30 SB, .731 OPS, 259 TB in 153 games
Freeman has the advantage over Albies statistically, leading him in everything but triples, runs, stolen bases, and total bases in 22 fewer games. Both players earned IL Postseason All-Star awards, but Freeman’s 2010 season as IL Rookie of the Year (.319, team-record 35 doubles, 18 homers, 87 RBIs, .898 OPS in 124 games) is overall more impressive than Albies’ 2017 All-Star campaign (.285, 21 doubles, team-record eight triples, nine homers, 41 RBIs, 21 stolen bases in 97 games).
At the Major League level, Freeman and Albies are both coming off National League Silver Slugger awards in 2019, but Freeman has the advantage of being a face of the Braves franchise longer (10 seasons since 2010), while Albies is still a newcomer by comparison (three seasons since 2019).
Triple-A dominance combined with big-league star power should lead the No. 1-seeded Freeman to the championship round, but never count out the 5-foot-8 Albies, who has exceeded expectations at every level of professional baseball.
Austin Riley (4) vs. Ronald Acuña Jr. (5)
Riley’s Decade Stats: .286, 30 2B, 0 3B, 27 HR, 80 R, 88 RBI, 1 SB, .878 OPS, 244 TB in 119 games
Acuña Jr.’s Decade Stats: .305, 16 2B, 2 3B, 10 HR, 47 R, 36 RBI, 16 SB, .831 OPS, 145 TB in 77 games
Riley and Acuña Jr. are arguably the two brightest offensive prospects to don a Gwinnett uniform since the beginning of the Stripers era in 2018. The main difference between the two currently is that Acuña Jr. has already made himself into a household name with Atlanta, while Riley is working on doing the same in 2020.
Acuña Jr. spent less time overall with Gwinnett, logging 77 games between the end of 2017 and the start of 2018. He made his Triple-A debut at age 19 and batted .344 with 14 doubles, two triples, nine homers, 38 runs scored, 33 RBIs, 11 stolen bases, and a .940 OPS in 54 games, capping off his selection as Baseball America 2017 Minor League Player of the Year. The next year, he spent a modest 17-game stint (.232, one homer, two RBIs, four stolen bases) with the Stripers before getting the call to Atlanta, where he batted .293 with 26 homers, 64 RBIs, and a .917 OPS in 111 games to win NL Rookie of the Year.
Riley has slugged 27 homers and driven in 88 runs over 119 games with Gwinnett over the past two seasons, including a white-hot 37-game stretch to open 2019 (.299, 10 doubles, 15 homers, 39 RBIs, 1.057 OPS). That success carried over once he was called up by Atlanta for his Major League debut, as he was named the NL Rookie of the Month for May (.356, seven homers, 20 RBIs, 1.143 OPS in 15 games). However, inconsistency and injury followed for Riley, who finished his first season with the Braves batting .226.
As not only an established Braves star but also one of the most exciting young players in all of Major League Baseball, Acuña Jr. has the advantage. Riley, however, has done more in a Gwinnett uniform, including tying the team single-game records for homers (3) and RBIs (8) in a 4-for-5 performance on May 13, 2018. As this bracket has already shown, anyone can win.
Cast Your Vote
Freeman or Albies? Riley or Acuña Jr.? The choice is yours, and you can vote in the Final Four of our Gwinnett Player of the Decade bracket (sponsored by Coolray Heating & Cooling) beginning Friday, April 3 at 5 p.m. on the Stripers official Twitter account, @GoStripers. The Championship Round will begin on Monday, April 6 at 5 p.m. Check back on GoStripers.com for announcement of the winner next week.