KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Four days before position players were due, Ronald Acuña arrived at spring training, and he did so with a purpose: making it impossible for the Braves to break camp without him on the roster.
“I want to make that decision as hard for them as possible,” the 20-year-old phenom said Thursday through an interpreter. “If they decide to send me down to Triple-A, I want to make it a tough decision and I want to make it to the point where I’m playing well enough that they really don’t have much of a decision.”
Desire and reality may be two different constructs, though.
"To be honest, I want to make that decision as hard for them as possible."@Braves top prospect Ronald Acuña on pushing to make the team's 2018 Opening Day roster. pic.twitter.com/LBCv6qAipM
Named the 2017 minor league player of the year by Baseball America and USA TODAY, Acuña hit .325/.374/.522 in 139 games across three levels with 21 home runs and 44 steals as teen. He went on to become the Arizona Fall League’s youngest MVP with a .325/.414/.639 slash line with seven homers in 23 games.
A spot in in the Braves’ outfield for years to come seems predestined — but hanging over his bid to break camp with a roster spot is the reality of service time. Keeping Acuña down even for a few weeks to avoid the full 172 days of service time would provide another valuable year of club control.
It’s a situation that Acuña is acutely aware of, but his early arrival was done so with the intent of showing just how badly he wants his MLB debut to come on Opening Day.
“I showed up early to try and win this roster spot and prove that I’m ready and give it my all,” he said.
Ronald Acuña showed up early for @Braves spring training. Why?
He’s not the only position player already in camp. Outfielders Lane Adams and Preston Tucker — who figure to fill the left-field spot vacated by Matt Kemp until Acuña’s arrival — are both early arrivals, along with center fielder Ender Inciarte. But Acuña is the only one without a current spot on the 40-man roster.
We know spring training’s long, but to see guys take ownership of their careers and want to show up, get the work in and be around, it’s certainly a good thing,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “You love to see it across the board, so for someone like that to want to do that, it speaks volumes about him.”
With the accolades has come attention, hype and fans at a fever pitch for his arrival. That Baseball America honor came with a magazine cover with the headline “The Prodigy,” and Acuña is MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 prospect, trailing only the Angels’ Japanese import Shohei Ohtani.
But Acuña is keeping it perspective by not getting away from the game itself.
“Luckily, I feel for me baseball is my true passion and I love it,” he said. “It’s something I feel like I’m good at, so when I’m out there on the field, it feels like it’s the only thing to focus on because that’s what I care about.”
“No to be honest I doesn’t really bother me at all. I actually feel pretty humbled and honored and grateful that I’ve received some notoriety and attention and really all I can try and do is prepare mentally and physically and just do my best and try to make the team.
This is officially Acuña’s first camp, though he was brought in to play in 13 Grapefruit League games last year, hitting .296/.387/.444 with two doubles and a triple in 27 at-bats.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I think it was very helpful. I think it was good to just be a part of the big league team and helpful to learn the things to do and the things not to do.”
A year later, he’s back for more than just a taste, even if the reality of the business of baseball sets the stage for a delayed MLB arrival.
“I was hoping they would invite me to come to the spring training camp and give me an opportunity to fight for a roster spot,” he said.