Ronald Acuña, the Atlanta Braves outfield prospect who is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, has been the talk of Braves spring training since the beginning of camp, tearing up the Grapefruit League and showing why there’s so much hype around him.
But on Monday, new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos reassigned Acuña to minor-league camp, meaning he will start the season in the minors at AAA Gwinnett — and it’s a good decision by the Braves front office.
Why is it the right move for the Braves to send to the minors a player who is playing as well as anyone this spring and has proven he is ready for the major leagues? Because given the current MLB rules regarding service time and arbitration, this will actually benefit the team long-term.
In the current collective bargaining rules between the MLB and the MLB Players Association, a full season of service time is 172 days, even though the MLB’s regular season is 186 days long. As a result, even if Acuña (or anyone else) plays in the majors for 171 days in 2018, it does not count as a full year of service time and the Braves will have an extra year of contractual control in his arbitration years.
If Acuña is not called up to the major leagues before April 13, he will be a free agent after the 2024 season; were he on the Opening Day roster, he would be a free agent after 2023.
Given the opportunity to keep a player of Acuña’s talent an additional year in the prime of his career, at only the expense of two weeks out of his rookie season, why wouldn’t the Braves keep him at Gwinnett for those two weeks? Put another way, 162 games of Acuña at age 26 is worth losing 12 games of his age-20 season.
This is especially true for a club in the Braves position. The Braves’ rebuild, which began after the 2014 season and has been rooted in building a stellar farm system, has them positioned for sustained success in the coming years, but they are still likely a year away from legitimately contending, barring a surprise 2018.
A .500 season is a fair goal this year; therefore, even if they lose a game in the first two weeks that they might have won with Acuña on the roster (which, by the way, there’s no way to definitively measure), that game will likely not cost them a division title or a spot in the postseason.
This concept is not new in MLB — the Cubs did this in 2015 with Kris Bryant, who was called up on April 17 and proceeded to win Rookie of the Year in 2015 and MVP in 2016.
Like Bryant three years ago, Acuña has had a terrific spring, hitting .432 with a .519 on-base percentage and a .727 slugging percentage, with four homers and 11 RBIs.
The strong spring is an extension of his strong 2017 season across three levels of the minors, where he actually improved statistically at each level, totaling a .325 average with a .896 OPS. Acuña was also the MVP of the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.
Among those who have seen him play, there is little doubt Acuña is a legitimate five-tool talent with the ability to become a major league star. And while it would be nice for Braves fans, and for the game in general, if he were on the Braves’ Opening Day roster, to me his special talent level and potential further solidify that this is the right move.
A small faction of Braves fans are frustrated at the team’s decision to keep their Acuña in the minors to start the season.
But if this works out like most think it will — if he is, in fact, able to live up to the hype — those same fans will be thanking management when Acuña is still in left field at SunTrust Park on Opening Day 2024 for the World Series favorite Atlanta Braves.