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Is Ronald Acuna Being Overdrafted?


With the recent glut of top prospect reports emerging from Keith Law to Baseball America, opinions on the future stars of baseball are myriad and loud. We all look longingly at the next generation and dreams of pennants dance in our heads. Of course, each pundit brings their own flavor to the conversation, and each brings their own favorites for whose jersey local fans will be buying in the next couple of years. It is the time of year where tools, not production, reign supreme. And while there are few agreements, one thing is extremely clear: the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna is the top non-Ohtani prospect in baseball.

This reverence comes with good reason, as Acuna was kind of unreal last season. Across three levels, Acuna produced 21 home runs and 44 steals on a .325 average while slugging .522 at the ripe old age of 20. He is a true five-tool talent, marrying impressive game power with a natural swing, quick wrists, and an instinctual approach to the game that makes you feel he was just born to play this game.

The physical tools and how they translate to baseball are beautiful, and Acuna truly looks like the whole package. Now, let me explain why you shouldn’t draft him in 2018.

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Phenoms Aren't Always Phenomenal

While Ronald Acuna is the dictionary definition of a phenom, in 2018 he represents a land mine waiting to punish fantasy owners suffering from FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. There’s one or two each year that ends up helping torpedo a fantasy season. Keep in mind that if you are in a dynasty or keeper league, this doesn’t apply to you. Ronald Acuna is very much indeed a supremely talented young man who is very likely to do great things as the future centerfielder of the Atlanta Braves. What this argues is that Acuna is the latest of a trend of top prospects who will go from “Next Big Thing” to “Post-Hype Sleeper” in the span of one season. Last season saw Dansby Swnason, for instance, get drafted far above what he produced. Swanson doesn’t represent a great comparison to Acuna, however.

For a better fit, look no further than the Minnesota Twins’ Byron Buxton. The two share remarkably similar profiles: quick twitch athletes that generate power through bat speed, produce great value in a critical defensive position, and are terrors on the base paths. Buxton came into baseball as the No. 2 overall pick in 2012 after future superstar and World Series champ Carlos Correa, and at no time was he under the radar. Acuna, on the other hand, signed as an international free agent for $100k in 2014 and has only shot into top prospect rankings since 2016. The tools are so tantalizing, that it is easy to forget that the Venezuelan will play the 2018 season at the ripe old age of 20.

It seems like forever ago, but Buxton debuted in the bigs in 2015 at the age of 22. To say that he struggled out of the gate is an understatement. In his first taste of the show, the young center-fielder managed just a .209 average and a pair of steals while striking out a brutal 31.9% of the time. Buxton showed none of the incredible tools that propelled him through the minors. He looked timid, unsure, and raw. Things did not improve for him until the second half of 2016. He still suffered from pitch recognition issues, but Buxton started putting together better at-bats and, unlike 2015, started generating power through his bat speed as he had previously.

In 2017, Buxton finally showed the real potential, marrying blistering speed with a smooth swing. The swing-and-miss issues are still there, 29.4% last season, but his walk rate, average, line drive rate, and contact percentages showed real progress. Further, you could see Buxton gain tremendous confidence on the base paths, collecting 29 steals on just 30 attempts. The 24-year old clearly needed time to get acclimated, and is actually poised to break out in 2018.

Acuna comes into this season with maybe even more hype than Buxton in 2015. He is younger with more natural power and has terrorized pitchers ever since entering full-season ball. There is no doubt that Acuna has the tools and drive to be a superstar, but that’s not the question that needs answering. Is Acuna going to produce in his first stint in the bigs, something other extreme talents like Buxton or Mike Trout, for that matter, couldn’t? To answer that question, one must look at Acuna’s metrics with a critical eye and resist being drawn in by the excitement of finding The Next Big Thing.

 

Risk > Reward?

For all of Acuna’s natural abilities, there are some holes that could delay his ascension. Strikeouts have been a persistent part of his game. There was improvement as he moved up the ladder, but it was clear that the more advanced pitchers could find holes with movement on their pitches. Sliders and curveballs that offered more bite proved to be an issue, although one that couldn’t be consistently exploited by minor league pitchers. Acuna may find more trouble with timing against big league pitchers, which could lead to more timid swings with less speed, thus keeping him from accessing that vaunted power. Further, Acuna tends to believe that he can hit almost anything thrown his way. Confidence is key in a young player, but how he reacts to being taught that he can’t hit everything is going to be critical with how he reacts to hardship in his budding career.

None of this is to throw cold water on Acuna’s potential. In a dynasty or long-term keeper league, Acuna is a fantastic target provided that you can be patient with any growing pains. But in 2018, if we’re isolating the coming season for redrafts, Acuna is a candidate to be a monster bust in his first big league season. Expert rankings and available ADP has Acuna projected to go around pick 118, give or take a few. That may sound like a reasonable price for a possible superstar, but those are the kinds of picks that can sink a team’s chances. Put a zero in place of a real asset like Zack Cozart, Felipe Rivero, Ozzie Albies, Justin Bour, or Michael Fulmer, all of whom are projected to go after Acuna, and the chance of success is dropped dramatically. Think of suffering through the first half of the season with Kevin Kiermaier, not that the injury issues were his fault but rather that getting so little out of a roster spot ultimately hamstrung his teams, making everything that much more difficult.

I’ll be buying all the shares of Acuna I can muster in 2019 and 2020. Even if he struggles out the gate, the conversation will be all about his extreme youth. Whether he can recover faster than Buxton did obviously remains to be seen, but rough times are coming. Let your competition buy in a year too early while you snag a boring, productive veteran that helps you win.

Feel free to get him in the first two rounds in dynasty drafts, but just be patient when he struggles. If you do miss out on him in this format, monitor his owner to see if he gives the youngster a quick hook and try to snag him for a deal. But in redrafts, unless he falls somewhere closer to pick 200, pass on him in favor of a more useful asset such as Adam Eaton, or even Acuna’s Atlanta teammate, Ozzie Albies.

 

More 2018 MLB Prospects Analysis