Young Ronald Acuna is player to watch for rebuilding Braves
By CHARLES ODUM
ATLANTA (AP) Brian Snitker is hoping to face some tough decisions at the end of March.
That would mean such top prospects as Ronald Acuna and Austin Riley have made such good impressions in Florida that it would be difficult to leave them off the Braves' opening day roster.
For Snitker, the third-year manager, that'd be great news for Atlanta's future.
Acuna, 20, an outfielder with power, speed and strong defense, is Atlanta's player to watch. He was the most valuable player of the Arizona Fall League, the youngest ever to earn that honor, and Baseball America's No. 1 prospect.
The young native of Venezuela impressed the Braves last spring on his visits from the minor league camp. Even at 19, he looked ready for the major leagues.
"If you want to get right down to it, he probably made our club as a fence-jumper last year, really," Snitker said. "... It's going to be even more fun this year to have him in camp every day and see what the kid brings."
The Braves would gain a seventh year of contractual control if Acuna spends a few weeks at Triple-A Gwinnett before making his major league debut. He could make the decision difficult by outplaying his competition.
"He's a very talented young man," Snitker said. "... He's probably going to make it hard on us."
The Braves helped to clear Acuna's path to the majors - and salary space in 2019 - by trading Matt Kemp to the Dodgers.
Here are some areas to watch for during spring training:
Two veteran starting pitchers, right-hander Brandon McCarthy and left-hander Scott Kazmir, were acquired from the Dodgers along with infielder Charlie Culberson in the Kemp trade. McCarthy will likely land in the middle of the rotation. The Braves see Kazmir, who missed the 2017 season with hip and back problems, as a possible bonus if he can return to good health. Preston Tucker, acquired in a trade from the Astros, could share time with Lane Adams in left field until Acuna is ready. R.A. Dickey, the most consistent starting pitcher last season, was not re-signed.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Riley hit a combined 20 homers at Class A and Double-A last season, and so is probably a year away from taking over at third base. Like Acuna, he could influence that timetable with a strong spring. Two 2015 first-round draft picks, right-hander Mike Soroka and left-hander Kolby Allard, also will be in their first big-league camp. The rookie with the best shot to make the rotation is hard-throwing left-hander Luiz Gohara, who was more impressive than his statistics in a five-game audition late last season.
First baseman Freddie Freeman was on track for his best season before missing seven weeks with a fractured left wrist. He says he's now fully recovered. Other strengths are the catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, the young middle infield combination of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, and Ender Inciarte, who won his second straight Gold Glove in center field.
It's not a good sign when the team's most established starting pitcher, Julio Teheran, had a 5.86 ERA in 17 starts at new SunTrust Park last season. Overall, Teheran was 11-13 with a 4.49 ERA, almost a run higher than his 3.59 career average. More scary pitching numbers: Mike Foltynewicz posted an ugly 6.34 ERA after last year's All-Star break. McCarthy, Gohara, Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, Max Fried and Kazmir, if healthy, will compete for other spots.
The Braves have made painfully slow progress the last three years, from 67 to 68 to 72 wins. They no longer are relying on such veterans as Dickey, Kemp, Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips to fill in while young players develop. The rebuild will gain momentum when Acuna makes his debut.
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Updated February 8, 2018