Braves Prospects Notebook: Ronald Acuna, Austin Riley, Ricardo Sanchez, Alex Jackson

KISSIMMEE, Fla.—While Luiz Gohara showed electric stuff on Opening Day for Atlanta’s high Class A Florida affiliate, the Fire Frogs had other noteworthy prospects on that team. Here are notes from watching the team’s four-game opening series against Daytona (Reds).

Ronald Acuna, of

With Dansby Swanson having graduated to the major leagues, the top-ranked position prospect in the pitching-heavy Braves system is Ozzie Albies. After him is Ronald Acuna, a well-rounded center fielder who at 19 is the youngest player in the Florida State League. A thumb injury limited Acuna to 42 games last year, though he showed enough in that time to rank as the No. 67 prospect on the Top 100 entering the 2017 season.

Against Daytona, he showed glimpses of his potential, but he didn’t quite look like that caliber of prospect. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, Acuna is athletic, showed a tick above-average speed home to first and a 70 arm on the 20-80 scale. In the last game of the series, Acuna threw out a runner at home from center field in the first inning. Later in the game, there were two instances of a runner on second and a single to center field, but neither runner bothered to test Acuna’s arm, though he showed it off anyway by firing a pair of strikes on a line to home plate.

Offensively, Acuna didn’t quite look like himself. The bat speed was evident and he showed near average raw power during batting practice, but he also swung through a lot of hittable fastballs in the strike zone. Acuna has never been a big swing-and-miss guy—he struck out in just 16 percent of his plate appearances last year with low Class A Rome—so it was surprising to see so many empty swings on fastballs. Acuna is just 6-for-27 (.222) with two walks and 10 strikeouts to start the season, so while it’s something to keep an eye on, it might also just be him getting his timing and pitch tracking back in the first week of the season.

“He runs real well, he’s got life in his bat, he’s got power, he plays good defense—he’s got it all,” Fire Frogs manager Paul Runge said. “He’s started out a little slow here at the plate, but nobody here is concerned about that. He’s another guy that wants to excel and he has all the ability to have that kind of year this year.”

Austin Riley, 3b

Austin Riley has two standout tools—power and arm strength. The plus power sticks out in batting practice and it was evident in games, with Riley crushing a home run to left field on Friday, then nearly hitting another one that the wind kept inside a ballpark with deep fences.

The upside is a power bat, but the primary risks with Riley are whether he can cut his strikeout rate and whether he can stay at third base. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Riley is a big man at 20, but he looked comfortable throughout the series at third base, making several impressive plays. Riley showed better agility than expected, making good plays to both sides, charged the slower roller well and showed quick reflexes on sharply-hit balls where he had little time to react. At the plate, Riley still showed some swing-and-miss tendencies, but in the field, he didn’t look like someone who would have to move to another position.

“He’s worked real hard on his defense,” Runge said. “He’s very conscientious. He wants to be a good defensive player and that’s half the battle—wanting to be a good defensive player. A player can make himself into an adequate or an average to plus defender by putting hard work into it. He’s been willing to put in that time, he’s made himself a better defensive player and he takes pride in his defense. He knows he’s an offensive player, but he wants to be an outstanding defensive player too. He puts in the work every day and he’s starting to reap some of the fruits of his labor right now. He’s moving real well to his left and right, he’s coming in on the ball real well and his throws have all been accurate to first base. He’s had some consistency on his throwing to first. It’s hard to find guys that can play third base. If you find a guy who can play third base and hit like he can with power, you’ve got the guy you’re looking for to be able to play third base some day in Atlanta.”

Ricardo Sanchez, lhp

For someone who had more runs allowed than innings pitched, lefthander Ricardo Sanchez showed a lot to like in his 2017 debut on Sunday. Sanchez, 20, showed three average to above-average pitches, but he gave up hard contact and didn’t throw enough strikes, allowing four runs in 3.2 innings with seven hits (including two home runs), three walks and five strikeouts.

“I thought he threw well for two innings, then the umpire may have missed a pitch on him, and then the next pitch the guy hit a home run,” Fire Frogs pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said. “I thought he stayed aggressive there, but then when he gave up the other home run, I thought he got away from his aggressiveness, started nitpicking and trying to make perfect pitches. That’s not him, but that’s a youthful tendency, so it’s something we’re going to address, but I actually thought he threw a lot of quality pitches today.”

Sanchez flashed the pure stuff to pitch in the middle or back of a major league rotation. His fastball parked at 90-94 mph and topped out at 95. His go-to out pitch since he signed with the Angels out of Venezuela four years ago has been an above-average curveball, which had tight spin and sharp break at 77-80 mph. He got even more swing-and-miss on his mid-80s changeup that threw off the timing of several hitters who were out front and swung through that pitch.

From watching Sanchez pitch, his track record of control problems is a bit surprising. Mechanically, Sanchez looks like he should be able to throw strikes. He has smooth, fluid arm action and a calm, easy delivery that should be repeatable, yet Sanchez has walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in his minor league career.

On Sunday, Sanchez seemed to change his approach once he started to surrender hard contact, which resulted in him throwing fewer strikes and allowing hitters to get into more favorable counts to sit on his fastball. It also seemed to cost him a little extra zip on his fastball, which was more in the 90-92 mph range toward the end of his outing. Yet the mechanical components are there to believe that Sanchez will eventually be able to become a better strike-thrower.

“I think it’s just innings, gaining confidence and trusting his stuff,” Lewallyn said. “I think if you said, ‘I’ll give you $100 if you can throw eight out of 10 pitches for strikes,’ I think he could do it. But now he’s got to learn how to pitch a little bit. So the walk ratio will go down.”

Alex Jackson, c

Alex Jackson was a high school All-American three times. The Mariners drafted him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft. We named him the Baseball America High School Player of the Year that year and ranked him as Seattle’s No. 1 prospect after the season.

Little has gone right for Jackson since then. Jackson, a 21-year-old righthanded batter, hit .233/.327/.399 with 223 strikeouts in 191 games from 2014-16 with the Mariners and didn’t make it past low Class A before Seattle traded him to the Braves in November.

During batting practice, Jackson showed more raw power than anyone in the series, popping balls off the batter’s eye in center field, then displayed it in the game by homering to right-center field. Jackson has a strong, powerful frame and looks bigger than his listed 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, but there’s a lot of stiffness to his game (both in his swing and defensive actions) with an uphill path and trouble recognizing pitches that led to too many empty swings.

That would be a difficult profile to project in right field, which is where the Mariners had been playing Jackson. The Braves have moved Jackson to catcher, the position he primarily played in high school. Even for a catcher, his offensive profile is risky, but his power at least gives him a chance if he can stick back there. Jackson only caught one of the four games in the series, but he looked understandably raw behind the plate in terms of receiving, throwing (runners went 4-for-4 against him stealing bases) and fundamental decision-making. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done for him to be able to stay behind the plate, though that’s to be expected at this point, given Jackson’s history, so what’s more important is how he looks at the end of the year.

“The Atlanta Braves feel very strongly about putting him back behind the plate again because with that bat and with his power, he’s got a chance to be an impact, offensive catcher,” Runge said. “It’s hard to find everyday catchers that can hit and hit with power like he has the ability to do. He’s strong as a bull. He’s absolutely strong as a bull. All he has to do is get extended and the ball just jumps off his bat. He hit the ball so hard the first night here on opening night, I had to jump out of the way of a couple bullets he hit down that third base coaching box. He got my attention real quick. He turns on the ball really well and he can go oppo too.”

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