Ronald Acuna: From AFL MVP to Impact Major-League Rookie

Ronald Acuna of the Atlanta Braves is the latest in a long line of Arizona Fall League alums to make an impact at the big league level right away.

The Arizona Fall League was created by Major League Baseball in 1992 with the purpose of being a offseason “graduate school” for baseball’s top prospects. Following the conclusion of the league’s 25th season last November, it is safe to say the AFL has developed a reputation for grooming the next generation of impact major-league players.

42 former Fall Leaguers were Major League Baseball All-Stars last season.The list includes some of the best players in the game today including the reigning American League Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, two-time AL Most Valuable Player Mike Trout, 2016 National League MVP and 2015 ROY Kris Bryant, and Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who could easily have two or three MVPs on his resume.

In addition, 64 2016 Fall League players played in the majors in 2017 alone. Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who took home NL ROY honors last season headlined a group that included Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird of the New York Yankees, Bradley Zimmer of the Cleveland Indians and Brett Phillips of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Proving himself against the best

After hitting .325 with 21 home runs and 82 RBIs between three levels of the Braves’ farm system in 2017, including .344 with nine home runs and 33 RBIs in 54 games at Triple-A Gwinnett, Atlanta sent Acuna to the Arizona Fall League to compete against the other top prospects in baseball.

All he did against what is considered by many to be a step above Triple-A competition is hit .325 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs in route to becoming the youngest player to take home league MVP honors. Acuna, who turned 20 in December, also stole 44 bases in 139 games in the minors last year, led the Fall League in runs (22), extra base hits (12) and total bases (53).

The Arizona Fall League has groomed many of the best @MLB players into stardom, and @Braves youngster Ronald Acuna Jr. is another.Click To Tweet

He finished the season on a five-game hitting streak, won AFL Player of the Week honors for Week 3 when he hit .475, and led the Peoria Javelinas to the AFL championship with two hits in four at-bats and four RBI in an 8-2 win over the Mesa Solar Sox.

“The best thing that can happen to any player either in the big leagues or minor leagues is to win the championship, and that’s what we were looking for since the beginning and we competed and we won the championship,” Acuna said.

Acuna is part of a group of young Braves players, some that have already reached the major league level and others that will likely get their shot soon, that are positioning the organization to be one of the top teams in baseball for the long haul.

The Braves are back

Flashback to the 1990’s. During that decade, the Braves dominated the National League. Led by John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones and manager Bobby Cox, the Braves won five league pennants, a World Series in 1995 and from 1991 to 2005, Atlanta won 14 consecutive division titles.

But after winning the NL East in 2013, the Braves took a step back in 2014. The team spent the next two seasons rebuilding and after opening their new ballpark, SunTrust Park, the Braves finished last season 72-90.

When most people think of the Braves they think of veterans, including the current group led by Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. But, it is actually a group of young, energetic and confident young players that have fueled the team’s revival in 2018.

Following a loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday, the Braves own a 51-41 record, 1.5 games back of the first place Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.

Unfortunately an injury and a subsequent stint on the disabled list slowed down a historic hot start to Acuna’s career, but he has come through in the clutch and played stellar defense in the outfield all season He is hitting .259, including .333 with RISP, with a .770 OPS and a 109 OPS+ in his first major league season. In the field, he has only committed three errors and has made his fair share of highlight real catches.

Remember he is only 20.

Then there is 21-year-old rookie and All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies. Albies is tied for first in the NL in doubles (29), first in extra base hits (52), first in runs scored (73), first in total bases (208) second in hits (113) and sixth in home runs (20).

Freedie Freeman has put together another All-Star season as well, ranking fourth in the NL in OPS (.940) and tied for sixth in RBI (60). Markakis sits second in the NL in hits and is batting over .320. But it is Acuna and Albies that make this team go and will be the face of the franchise for years to come.

Joe Jacquez and Griffin Fabits covered the AFL last season for Baseball Essential.
To read their coverage click here.

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