Braves Face Tough Opening Day Decision
Left field has not been a position of permanency for the Braves. In the 19 seasons since Ryan Klesko concluded his five-year term in left, few players have held the job in back-to-back campaigns, the last being Justin Upton in 2013 and 2014.
Twenty-one different players have toiled in left field since Upton left, so it's understandable why fans are excited to see No. 1 prospect in baseball Ronald Acuna take over the job early in 2018.
Acuna has emerged as the most anticipated Braves prospect since Andruw Jones in 1996. He blazed through the top three levels of the farm system in 2017, hitting .325/.374/.522 with 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases in 139 games to claim the BA Minor League Player of the Year award.
The 20-year-old Venezuelan outfielder, who signed in 2014, capped last season by becoming the youngest player to be tabbed Arizona Fall League MVP. He hit .325 and led the circuit with seven homers and a .639 slugging percentage.
Acuna reported to big league camp as a non-roster player but is no stranger in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Last March, he impressed the Braves by hitting .296 in 13 spring training games—despite missing all but two months of 2016 at low Class A Rome with a broken thumb.
Braves manager Brian Snitker said Acuna could have gone north with the team a year ago despite his lack of upper-levels experience.
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"He’s a special player with a world of talent who plays the game with confidence and composure,” Snitker said. "He’s fun to watch. Every part of his game is so smooth and easy. He has the skill set to be an impact guy at this level.”
While Acuna is a natural center fielder, the Braves have one of the game’s top defensive outfielders in two-time Gold Glover Ender Inciarte.
In reality, Acuna's biggest obstacle to a big league job may be contractual control, meaning Atlanta might have him spend a couple weeks at Triple-A Gwinnett in order to delay his free agency by a year.
"I’m looking forward to seeing him play,” Snitker said. "By the end of camp, he’s probably going to make (the decision) hard on us.”