Ronald Acuna is scuffling.
Not in the traditional sense of the word, mind you. Not in the way a typical 20-year-old player scuffles, because almost nothing Acuna does resembles the behavior of a typical 20-year-old player.
The best prospect in baseball gets advice from Robinson Cano, nicknames from Starling Marte and free shoes from a guy who answers to the name of Rio. He also gets hits as if he's allergic to outs. And yet, here he is, five days before the Atlanta Braves will most likely, definitely, probably, certainly, maybe, undoubtedly call him up to the big leagues, scuffling against Triple-A pitching.
"It's early in the year," Acuna says through a translator while chuckling. Seated in the visiting dugout at Durham Bulls Field, he downplays the fact that he has gone hitless in each of the first two games that his Gwinnett Stripers have played so far. In a couple hours, he'll take the field again and go hitless for a third straight game, further fueling the sense of agita that's been steadily swelling within Braves Nation. As for Acuna himself, he is not among the worried: "Things happen in baseball. It's just part of the game."
It's a part of the game that he's not very used to.
THE KID WAS putting on a show.
It was August 2017 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Acuna had just homered in back-to-back games and was hitting .341 in a little more than a month since getting called up to Gwinnett. Before that, he had breezed through high-A and Double-A, needing just 85 games to convince Braves brass that his numbers (he hit a combined .313 with 12 homers and 33 steals) were not a mirage and that he was ready for the highest level the minors had to offer. Before that, in 2016, he'd torn it up in low-A ball to the point that Starling Marte -- the Pittsburgh Pirates' All-Star outfielder -- felt compelled to send the teenager a text wherein he dubbed him El Abusador, a reference to the manner in which Acuna routinely pummeled the baseball.
A year later, Acuna was still roughing up the rawhide routinely. He'd gone deep in each of the first two games in Scranton and was slated to lead off against the RailRiders in the series finale. Before heading out to the batter's box, he was approached by Gwinnett cleanup hitter Rio Ruiz. In an effort to keep things interesting, to keep Acuna challenged and engaged, Ruiz made an offer to the precocious prospect: If you hit a bomb in your first AB, I'll buy you a pair of Air Jordans.
On the very first pitch of the game, Acuna turned on a fastball and sent it clear out of the stadium. It was his third homer in as many days, and his fourth in five games. Next thing he knew, there was a package waiting for him in front of his locker. Inside it was a brand new pair of Jordans. Black and white, size 11 1/2. Scary thing is, his teammates weren't even surprised by the feat. Says Ruiz: "There's nothing not special about him."
One of the most special things about Acuna is his bloodline. His father, Ronald Sr., spent five years as an outfielder in the Mets organization. He's cousins with former Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar and current Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. The oldest of four baseball-playing siblings, he signed for a relatively small sum of $100,000 back in 2014, and the word is that his younger brother Luisangel could sign for five times that much this summer. But just as impressive as Acuna's lineage is his learning.
"He's one of those kids, you tell him once and he's got it," says Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill. "He's a bright kid that soaks it in. It makes the jump really quick for him."
Perhaps a little too quick.
"I want to be like Mike Trout. I want to be at that level. I want to be great. I want to get to the big leagues, stay in the big leagues and play for a lot of years. Everything that comes with it. Be an All-Star, win championships, all that." Ronald Acuna
In late February, when the young outfielder did a spring training media session with his cap sitting loosely atop his head and the brim pointing toward the sky, it sparked a firestorm in which the club made it clear that they'd prefer Acuna to wear his lid differently. Even Andruw Jones (the former Atlanta center fielder and five-time All-Star who debuted at age 19 and is the obvious choice for those seeking a historical comp to Acuna) chimed in.
"The main thing he needs to remember is keep your head straight and respect [your surroundings]," Jones told MLB.com. "Be humble, but a humble-cocky."
Three weeks later, despite Acuna making fresh-squeezed juice out of Grapefruit League pitching -- he hit .432 with four home runs in 16 games, including homers against New York's Masahiro Tanaka and Toronto's Aaron Sanchez -- the Braves announced that the Venezuelan phenom was being reassigned to minor league camp and would be starting the season in Triple-A. The move was simultaneously shocking and expected.
On one hand, it seemed as if Acuna had proven everything there was to prove. He soared through the minors last season as if the learning curve somehow didn't apply to him, his average spiking at each level. He went to the Arizona Fall League, where he continued to mash (1.053 OPS) and became the youngest player ever to win the MVP. Then came his ridiculous spring training performance. Plus, it's not like the Braves didn't need outfield help: Although they had veteran Nick Markakis in right and 2017 All-Star Ender Inciarte in center, there was a glaring hole in left, where Preston Tucker and Lane Adams -- a pair of reserves in their late 20s -- were Atlanta's next best options.
On the other hand (presumably the hand that signs the Braves' paychecks), the odds of Acuna making the big club out of spring training were slim. Although the team cited "developmental reasons" for sending Acuna down, it's impossible to ignore the math of it all, which is this: The MLB season is 186 days long. If a player spends at least 172 days on the big-league roster, he gets credit for a full year of service time, which counts toward the six years of control a team has before the player becomes a free agent. So by keeping Acuna in the minors for a couple of weeks at the outset (at least 15 days, to be exact), Atlanta would have him under contract through the 2024 season instead of 2023.
Although it's a fiscally prudent model that has become increasingly common with top prospects across the league, Braves management maintains that the bottom line didn't matter in this case.
"None," says Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos when asked how much the whole service-time issue played into Acuna's demotion. "Zero."
Still, from the Braves' perspective, given that they weren't expected to be competitive this year, the move made all the sense -- er, cents -- in the world. From the player's perspective, not so much.
"I was very surprised," Acuna says. "They told me I was going to compete for a spot, and I took it as that. I left it all out on the field. So, yeah, I was surprised. I didn't understand at the time because I'd done such a good job. But, hey, it's fine. I feel good. I'm going to continue to work."
That's not to say he won't play, too.
The one thing that sticks out most when you watch Acuna during batting practice, besides the monster bombs ("As high and far as I've ever seen anyone hit 'em," one scout says), is how much fun he seems to be having. Standing on the outfield grass in between defensive reps, he's the only one dancing, holding his candy-apple-red glove in front of his face as if he's at a club and the mitt is his date.
While all of his teammates wear their road-gray pants down to their shoes, he opts for knee-high knickers that show off the navy socks with the bright green stripes. His flat-brimmed hat sits firmly on his head per the front office's wishes, but he slants it to the right side of his head so that it's pointing at about 1 o'clock instead of the traditionally accepted high noon position.
Although his game has drawn comparisons to that of former Braves great Hank Aaron (among others), his pregame conjures up images of a more recent Hall of Fame outfielder.
"He reminds me of Ken Griffey Jr.," says Acuna's agent, Peter Greenberg, of Legacy Sports. "From the moment he gets to the park, he's having fun."
For what it's worth, Acuna has his own comparisons in mind.
"I want to be like Mike Trout," Acuna says. He also wouldn't mind ending up like fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera, the inspiration behind the No. 24 that Acuna has always worn on his back. "I want to be at that level. I want to be great. I want to get to the big leagues, stay in the big leagues and play for a lot of years. Everything that comes with it. Be an All-Star, win championships, all that."
Of course, none of that happens without first graduating from Gwinnett. Something that seemed like a mere formality when he got sent down in March, Acuna's ascension to Atlanta -- which becomes official Wednesday and could result in him debuting against the Reds as early as Wednesday night -- has become a subject of debate recently thanks to his early struggles with the Stripers.
"You don't want to call him up just to call him up," says one scout who watched Acuna extensively in April. "Then you're just setting the kid up for failure at [a] big league level, especially if he's been slumping down here." Says another scout of Acuna's demotion and subsequent slump: "So much of this game is between the ears. Something like that can f--- with your head." Of course, the same could be said for a bumpy patch in the big leagues.
"If things like that are going to impact your career," says Anthopoulos, "I don't like your chances to begin with. If a cold start at the minor league level is going to phase you, then you've got the wrong player."
EL ABUSADOR is disabusing.
Specifically, he's disabusing a reporter of the notion that his season-opening skid was starting to get to him, that prior to recording his first hit against Durham -- a 110 mph laser down the left field line that went for a double and snapped an 0-for-11 slump -- he had his hand on the panic button.
"I wasn't worried," he says with a straight face. Seated in front of his locker after collecting his first two knocks of the season in Gwinnett's fourth game, he doesn't know what lies ahead. He doesn't know that in his next five contests, he'll go a combined 3-for-21 and that after nine games in Triple-A, he'll be hitting an anemic .139 with 14 strikeouts in 36 at-bats.
A distressing downturn that had folks wondering whether baseball's top prospect was really ready for prime time, the slump also caused Atlanta to handle the kid with kid gloves: Instead of calling up Acuna on April 15, the earliest date that would still prevent him from getting 172 days of service time this season, the Braves waited an extra 10 days. Not that Acuna was letting his struggles get to him.
"Always stay positive," he says, echoing the words of Robinson Cano, to whom Acuna reached out for counsel last year. Because when you're the top prospect in the game, you can hit up a future Hall of Famer out of the blue like it's no big deal. That's exactly what Acuna did, using Instagram to contact Cano, whom he'd never met before. The Seattle second baseman responded with words that, while not exactly revolutionary, resonated: "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something."
To this day, Acuna calls Cano's words of wisdom the best advice he's ever gotten. Better than any nugget he got from any of his ball-playing cousins. Better than any pearl he got from his father, including the time when he was 15 and his pops suggested he switch from third base to outfield.
"He told me it was a better opportunity for me because I could run," Acuna says. "He could tell I was going to develop."
Just how quickly Acuna develops -- how long it takes him to become the perennial All-Star that he's projected to be -- remains to be seen. In the meantime, five days before the Atlanta Braves were most likely, definitely, probably, certainly, maybe, undoubtedly going to call him up to the big leagues, he was still in Triple-A. Slump or no slump, he wasn't planning on staying.
"I don't expect to be here very long."