When the Atlanta Braves reassigned Ronald Acuna to minor league camp on March 19, it was easily the most blatant case of service time manipulation since the Chicago Cubs kept Kris Bryant in Triple-A at the start of the 2015 season.
The idea that Acuna needed more seasoning in the minors was laughable. He had absolutely nothing left to prove on the farm. But service time manipulation is now the norm, and the Braves have been burned once before by opting to bring a top prospect north for Opening Day only to have to trade him the year before he hit free agency. Getting the majority of seven seasons of Jason Heyward rather than the five they got could have been the difference between a few more tries to contend for the playoffs as opposed to the precipitous decline the franchise suffered after his departure.
They are determined not to make that mistake again, and now that the service time threshold has passed, they will bring up baseball's most exciting hitting prospect. As we look forward to his debut, let's take a look back at his road to the majors.
Acuna has a baseball pedigree. Both his father and grandfather played professionally, but neither made the major leagues. He signed with the Braves as an international free agent out of Venezuela in 2014 at the age of 16. He was given a $100K signing bonus.
Of course, the Braves have had some problems with international free agent signings of late. In November, MLB voided the contracts of 13 of their prospects, including high-level infielder Kevin Maitan, for improperly funneling extra signing bonus money to prospects and exceeding the hard cap on international free agent signings. Their former general manager, John Coppolella, was banned from baseball and their chief of international scouting was suspended for a year.
Fortunately for Braves fans, Acuna wasn't included in Coppolella's shenanigans and was free to make his meteoric rise through the minor leagues.
Dominating the farm
Acuna proceeded to lay waste to the minor leagues. In 2015, he was sent to Rookie ball and cleared both levels, then quickly found his way to Class-A in 2016. He was limited to 40 games due to injury, but slashed .311/.387/.432 with four homers, 18 RBI and 14 steals for the Rome Braves.
That earned him a start with the Advanced-A Florida Fire Frogs in 2017. He was only there for a month before he outgrew the Florida State League and was sent to Double-A Mississippi. As if he wasn't good enough, that's where his power started to click. He hit nine homers in 57 games until the All-Star break, when he played in the Futures Game and then got sent to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he continued rampaging over minor league pitching.
Over three levels, he totaled 21 home runs, 84 RBI, and 44 steals while slashing .325/.374/.522 and cutting his strikeout rate at each level. Then, just to prove his superior ability at life, he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League and became the youngest player to win the AFL's MVP award, hitting .325/.414/.639 with seven homers and 16 RBI in 23 games.
Brought up for his second Grapefruit League campaign this spring, Acuna simply dominated. His slash line was an absurd .432/.519/.727 with four homers, a double, and 11 RBI. If ever the MLBPA had a reason to file a grievance over service time manipulation, Acuna was it.