Ronald Acuna heads into Blue Jays series at height of his powers

Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) reacts after hitting a two-run home run in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Friday, April 9, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore / AP)

How much fun would it have been for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to have the injured Juan Soto on hand for his historic three-home run performance against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night?

He’s not there yet — it’s reflective that he didn’t even crack MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa’s recent Top 5 Under 25, although Kansas City Royals prospect Bobby Witt Jr. did — but planned or not it suddenly appears as if the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman is making up for lost time.

So enter another member of the cohort of transcendent young stars: the Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr., whose team will provide the Blue Jays opposition starting Friday in a three-game series at Dunedin’s TD Ballpark. Acuña was No. 2 on DeRo’s list, behind Fernando Tatis Jr. and that’s fair: I think most observers would have Tatis, Acuña and Soto in some order, with significant separation between those three and other young stars like Guerrero or Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox. Besides, lists are meant to be fun, no?

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was on Lead Off With Ziggy and Scotty Mac on Friday and had little difficulty coming up with an Acuña/Guerrero comparison – but it was Vladimir Sr. that Anthopoulos mentioned.

“He has a chance to do something unbelievable every time he comes to the plate,” said Anthopoulos, who cut his teeth in the Montreal Expos front office.

Acuña is hitting .341 with an OPS of 1.159 and he is a different all-around player than Guerrero Jr. He, Tatis Jr. and the Minnesota Twins' Byron Buxton are the only players who rank in the 95th percentile or better in hard-hit rate and sprint speed. A homer on Tuesday was his first extra-base hit in seven games, after tying Hank Aaron’s 1959 club record for most extra-base hits in the Braves' first 13 games (14.)

Acuna’s strikeout rate is a career-best, as are most of his underlying statistics. He will play this whole season at the age of 23 and there are signs he is still improving. He has more than answered a challenge presented to him in the off-season by hitting coach Kevin Seitzer to flatten his swing and make himself less susceptible to pitches up in the zone.

There will not likely be another long-term contract signed this decade that provides a team with the value the Braves will be getting out of Acuña, who is under contract through his age-30 season that will see him earn $122 million if all club options are exercised. It might make even Mike Trout’s modest deal seem outrageous, and it was pilloried by agents and other players when it was signed, with many all but accusing the Braves of “taking advantage” of Acuña’s family, despite the player being represented by well-established agents Peter and Edward Greenberg. A similar criticism was directed at Ozzie Albies when the Braves signed him in 2019 to a seven-year, $35-million guaranteed deal that could max out at nine years, $45 million.

Seeing Tatis Jr. sign a 14-year, $340-million contract this winter only added to the scrutiny. These deals are of significance to the Blue Jays, of course, since in due time they will need to come to longer-term arrangements with their own young stars, Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette. Like Tatis Jr., they are sons of MLB players who grew up comfortably, which suggests to many in the industry that they might drive a harder bargain than Acuña and Albies.

Leaving aside the reality that not everybody has the same risk tolerance — balancing off guaranteed money versus the financial cost of serious injury is a very human thing — there is a danger in overlooking some differences between the deals.

Acuña’s signing bonus when he came out of Venezuela was just $100,000 and his deal was signed before the start of his second season. As Anthopoulos noted, Acuña will have a shot at free agency at the age of 30 if the contract is played out to its end.

“When you sign long-term deals, you want to out-perform your contract,” said Anthopoulos. “As long as you do it right, you get a second bite at the apple (free agency.)”

Tatis should have received more: he’d been in the Majors longer when he signed his deal this spring and it takes him through the age of 35. His ‘second bite’ will likely be a much smaller bite than Acuña’s.

Anthopoulos was candid when he added: “I didn’t see a scenario where he stayed with us for six years if he didn’t sign.”

Unsaid was the fact that this is also an easily-tradable contract, if in fact something catastrophic happens to the Braves, who like the Blue Jays are owned by a publicly-traded media company, Liberty Media. At any rate, Blue Jays fans can only hope that Guerrero Jr. and Bichette’s performances make this a talking point locally, because it will be a sign that things have gone very, very well. In the meantime? I’m going to enjoy the show…


• Fair is wondering what type of voodoo the Tampa Bay Rays have on the Houston Astros. The teams meet this weekend at Tropicana Field for the first time since the Rays took Game 7 of the 2020 American League Championship Series, with the Rays 8-0-1 in season series between the teams since 2008 and 30-18 with nine shutouts since the Astros switched to the AL in 2013. Even during the Astros' 100-win seasons (2017-19) the Rays managed to go 4-3 each season, accomplishing something no other team has managed to do before or since: win the season series in three consecutive years against a 100-win team …

• Foul is the foul territory at the RingCentral Coliseum, where the Blue Jays will start a four-game series on Monday against the Oakland Athletics. This will be some kind of experience for the Blue Jays' infielders, particularly Guerrero Jr. and third baseman Cavan Biggio. No ballpark in the Majors has the expanse of foul territory found in Oakland — every ball is in play for a long time — and as former Minnesota Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe noted earlier this year when Luis Arraez’s throwing error from third cost the Twins a game, visiting infielders sometimes have issues with depth perception throwing to first base given how far away the stands are from the bag. Should be fun…

• Fair is wondering whether Sunday won’t be one of the most important days of the season for the Padres. That’s when Dinelson Lamet is scheduled to start against the San Francisco Giants after leaving his first start of the season on April 21 with a forearm strain. Lamet missed the post-season because of a UCL strain that was treated with a platelet-rich plasma injection, and while the Padres made buttressing their starting rotation an off-season priority in part because of Lamet’s injury, the organization was pleased when he all but sailed through spring training. Lamet did not have an MRI after his early exit, which was the first glitch in his recovery and led to suggestions he might be bound for Tommy John surgery, and he pounded his way through a bullpen session this week …

• Fair is getting a little worked up about the return of minor-league baseball this week. The pandemic killed the 2020 minor-league season and since then the entire system has been overhauled as MLB assumed operations of its player development system. The Blue Jays have loaded up their double-A New Hampshire affiliate while triple-A Buffalo will play in Trenton, N.J. this season as the Blue Jays prepare for a future move into Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. They’ll wear Buffalo Bisons jerseys on the road but Trenton Thunder jerseys at home, which is a neat trick since the Thunder were last a New York Yankees affiliate.

Of chief interest to Blue Jays fans will be pitcher Alek Manoah, who will jump to triple-A after an impressive spring and who is pretty clearly on the fast-track to the Majors. For many of these prospects, last season was limited to working out at an alternate training site so there is a great deal of anticipation to see a resumption of normal competition and get a gauge on where players are in their development. Outfielder Josh Palacios, who spent last year at the alternate site and appeared in 10 major-league games this season, was one of those players who said he believed the alternate site helped him work on his game because it allowed players to focus on specific areas of their game – he pinpointed base-stealing – without having to worry about statistical results …


It’s never too early to think about a potential issue for MLB, so how about this: how does the game get around the pressure it will get to have Shohei Ohtani take part in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field? Ohtani will be voted into the game, you’d have to think, and who knows? Maybe we could see him both hit and pitch – which would be hella fun – but how do the Los Angeles Angels and baseball avoid having him take part in the derby if he’s among the league leaders?

The derby usually gets solid TV ratings but you’d have to wonder what the impact would be in Ohtani’s native Japan if he was in the competition. True, an 8:30 p.m. ET start to the derby – 6:30 in Denver – would be 9:30 a.m. in Tokyo but Japanese baseball fans would push those ratings over the top. The Angels and Ohtani himself might need some selling here – can you imagine the hue and cry if Ohtani hurt himself taking a hack? – and some of us would suggest that since half the thing that makes Ohtani unique (the ability to pitch) isn’t a factor in the derby, well, how special would it really be?

It’s quite the quandary, but who wouldn’t be intrigued with the chance of seeing Ohtani win the Home Run Derby on Monday night and be the winning pitcher of record in the game 24 hours later?

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central from 2-3 p.m. ET and Writers Bloc from 3-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan

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