Image credit: Ronald Acuna (Photo by Tom DiPace)
Shortly after Freddie Freeman swung through a 92 mph Kenley Jansen cutter for the final out of the National League Division Series, Braves manager Brian Snitker ascended a podium in the interview room at SunTrust Park and engaged in the customary postmortem. Snitker is an earnest and unpretentious sort — you can picture him pleasantly discussing lug wrench options from behind a counter at the local True Value Hardware store — and every sentiment he expresses is straight from the gut.
“I have a great sense of the future,” Snitker said after Atlanta’s 6-2 loss in Game 4. “I think it’s very bright. We took a huge step forward this year. We had some very young players get a lot of great experience, both during the regular season and the postseason. And we have some really good players coming. I really am excited about the future of the Atlanta Braves right now, with the young nucleus that we have here.”
There’s the game plan — nice, succinct and laser-focused. Combine the steadying influence of Freeman with the talent and exuberance of outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., second baseman Ozzie Albies and third baseman Johan Camargo, waves of pitching and one of Major League Baseball’s best developmental pipelines, and it leads to one inevitable conclusion: The Braves expect to make October baseball a habit.
“I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” said Freeman.
Atlanta’s surprise breakthrough this year was aided, in part, by the incompetence and/or underachieving performance of its divisional competitors. Bryce Harper‘s pending free agency hung over the Nationals all year, and Juan Soto‘s arrival wasn’t enough to salvage the narrative. The Phillies started out strongly under new manager Gabe Kapler, floundered late and enter the offseason with lots of money to spend and numerous questions to be answered. The Marlins, in their first year under the Derek Jeter-led ownership group, averaged 10,013 fans per game and are gearing up for a run at Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa and his brother, Victor Jr., that they hope will usher in a new era of success in South Florida.
And the Mets? That’s a subject of a whole ‘nother column.
Star power counts for something, and the Braves can revel in the best of all worlds. Think about it: While the Angels can point to Mike Trout as their franchise face and the Diamondbacks can always count on Paul Goldschmidt — and the Blue Jays have Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Nationals have Soto — it’s rare for a team to be blessed with a perennial All-Star candidate who maintains continuity and a generational talent who can elicit gasps almost on cue. That’s what the Braves are blessed with in Freeman and Acuna.
No Atlanta player understands the tug of war between patience and instant gratification better than Freeman, who’s seen both sides since his arrival in Atlanta in 2010. As a rookie, he played for an 89-win team led by Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, Martin Prado and Brian McCann. The Braves signed him to an eight-year, $135 million extension in the spring of 2014, and Freeman has validated the investment with the third best OPS among MLB first basemen (.907) behind Joey Votto and Goldschmidt in that span. But after consecutive seasons of 79, 67, 68 and 72 wins, he was ready for something more than incremental progress and hope rooted in a smorgasbord of talent on the farm.
Acuna’s coming-out party was always more a question of “when” than “if.” He showed flashes of brilliance in his first month with the Braves, but he didn’t begin to take flight until he returned in late June from a month-long hiatus caused by a knee injury. Snitker inserted him in the leadoff spot in Atlanta’s first game after the All-Star break, and Acuna methodically began picking off historical figures of various stature.
Acuna’s eight homers out of the leadoff spot broke the Atlanta franchise record set by Marquis Grissom in 1996, and he joined Eddie Mathews, Orlando Cepeda, Al Kaline, Tony Conigliaro, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott as one of seven players to record their 25th home run in a season before their 21st birthday.
During the height of Acuna’s ascendance this summer, Freeman made a few Mike Trout comparisons. He’s not backing off that sentiment.
“He hits the ball so hard,” Freeman said. “I can only dream of hitting the ball that hard, and he does it with ease. He makes solid contact almost every single time. Obviously, Mike takes a lot more walks, but I think Ronald is going to grow into it. To even compare him to Mike Trout is tough to do, but he has the potential to be that good.”
Back in spring training, longtime Braves’ favorite Ralph Garr watched Acuna pierce the humid Florida air with batting practice bombs and observed that the kid had a little Hank Aaron in him. The compliment was as much a tribute to Acuna’s charisma and “it factor” as his strong wrists and elite bat speed. Mid-summer, when Acuna was injured and away from the team, he arrived at SunTrust Park for his rehab sessions and bumped into Hammerin’ Hank here and there. They navigated the language barrier and had a conversation or two, and the encounters made an indelible impression on Acuna.
“That’s not just a superstar for the Braves,” Acuna said through team translator Franco Garcia. “That’s a superstar for the whole league. To be compared to a superstar like that is a tremendous honor. I think more than anything, it motivates me to keep improving and keep working to get better.”
While greatness beckons for Acuna, his teammates are happy to come along for the ride. Atlanta sports fans rejoiced this summer with the local team’s first postseason appearance since 2013. The Braves — from the front office to the manager to the 25th man on the roster — are convinced this is only the beginning.