The Next Vlad Guerrero: MLB's Top Hitting Prospect Ronald Acuna Is Ready to Star

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2018

MESA, AZ - NOVEMBER 07:  Ronald Acuna #34 of Peoria Javelinas (ATL) smiles after singling against the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League game at Sloan Park on November 11, 2017 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Alex Anthopoulos is still new on the job with the Atlanta Braves, hired as general manager barely three months ago after the guy who had the job before, John Coppolella, broke too many rules and eventually got banned from baseball. Anthopoulos knows he inherited an organization that should be on the rise, helped by a 20-year-old outfielder who may well be the best prospect in the game.

"I'm just anxious to see him play," Anthopoulos said by phone when Ronald Acuna's name came up this week.

So is everybody else. And while it's Anthopoulos and his staff who will have to make the decision on whether Acuna is ready for the big leagues right now, scouts who have followed the young Venezuelan on his quick journey through the minor leagues have no doubt he is.

"Tell Alex to turn him loose," one National League scout said. "Don't lose this kid by not challenging him."

The scout went on to say that Acuna is the best prospect he has seen in the last couple of years and that "his skills shadow" those of new Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero.

"Bottom line, he resembles a 30-30 type [30 home runs, 30 steals], a terrific athlete in the middle of the order playing a skilled position," the scout said. "He has a demeanor like Vlad. Loves to play. Work habits, makeup, instinct are sound. He's a guy you edge up on your seat when he gets in the box."

Brian Snitker and Anthopoulos will ultimately need to decide if Acuna is ready for the big leagues on Opening Day.
Brian Snitker and Anthopoulos will ultimately need to decide if Acuna is ready for the big leagues on Opening Day.David Goldman/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He's ready," another NL scout agreed. "Just get out of the way and let him play."

So there you go, Alex, and you're welcome for the help making your decision easier.

"We're going to keep an open mind," Anthopoulos said. "We do feel he's going to impact us at some point in 2018."

"We'll let the spring play out," Braves manager Brian Snitker agreed. "And we'll see where we're at at the end of camp."

Fair enough. The Braves play their first Grapefruit League game Friday against the New York Mets. They have more than a month to go before their March 29 Opening Day game against the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park.

Acuna has plenty of time to make an impression.

Or maybe he already has.

"He's a better athlete than everybody else," Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "... I mean, it's pretty special. It's one of those things that’s even hard to explain really. If you just watch it, you can tell there's a difference, whether you know a lot about baseball or whether you know nothing, you just kind of say, that guy is doing something right."

"He's way ahead of me [as a prospect]," new Hall of Famer Chipper Jones told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. "... He's as good a prospect as I've seen."

On the traditional scouting scale of 20-80, Acuna has a 70 arm and is a 70 runner, one of the scouts said. Think of a .300 hitter who has 25 home runs a year and a guy who qualifies as a "grinder," even though he's a great player.

"He's going to be an All-Star," the scout said. "I don't see any issues."

Neither do the Braves, who originally signed Acuna for a bargain $100,000 and were convinced enough by his talent that they moved him from Class A to Double-A to Triple-A in 2017, all while he was still 19 years old.

On its list of baseball's top 100 prospects, MLB.com ranked Acuna second, behind Japanese import Shohei Ohtani (and just ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). Baseball America listed him first, ahead of Ohtani. On ESPN.com, Keith Law also listed him first, saying he has a "Mike Trout-ish" profile.

The Trout comparison is understandable if you only look at numbers. In his 54 games at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2017, Acuna had a .940 OPS. He hit with power (nine home runs, 14 doubles in just 243 plate appearances), and he stole 11 bases. And when he moved on to the Arizona Fall League, he had a 1.053 OPS and became the youngest MVP in AFL history.

When Baseball America put together a list of the best minor league seasons primarily above Class A by players who were still in their teens, Acuna was the only player since Trout in 2011 to make the top 10. Trout's 2011 OPS+ was 156; Acuna's OPS+ in 2017 was 155.

Acuna's outstanding 2017 season ended with him being named the youngest MVP ever in the Arizona Fall League.
Acuna's outstanding 2017 season ended with him being named the youngest MVP ever in the Arizona Fall League.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

But scouts who have seen Acuna play reject the Trout comparison because their body types and profiles are so different. Trout is more powerful, Acuna more athletic.

Veteran Braves people prefer a comparison to Andruw Jones, who topped that Baseball America list with a 188 OPS+ in 1996 and went on to hit two home runs at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the World Series that fall.

One NL scout didn't totally dismiss the Jones comparison. He said Acuna isn't the center fielder Jones was but seems more driven to succeed.

The Braves don't need Acuna to be a center fielder, at least not now. They have Ender Inciarte in center, and he won a Gold Glove for the second straight time last year. They don't have an easy answer in left field, not unless they simply hand the position to Acuna.

"We want to do what's best for his development long-term," Anthopoulos said. "He rocketed through the minor leagues last year. There's been some talk about how Dansby Swanson was handled and whether he would have had fewer growing pains if he had stayed longer in the minor leagues."

It's a fair question, given that the Braves had to send Swanson back to the minors for a brief tuneup last July.

"This kid is different," the NL scout countered. "Dansby hurt Dansby because he's so tough on himself. Dansby will be a solid consistent complementary player when he realizes he can't save the world. Or the Braves!"

As for Acuna, he might be able to save the Braves. But he first needs to be unleashed.

                        

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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