On April 25, 2018, the wait was over.
The much anticipated debut of Atlanta Braves’ prospect Ronald Acuna, Jr. was finally a reality. The christening was the most hyped debut for a Brave since Jason Heyward’s electric entrance on Opening Day 2010.
Unlike Heyward, Acuna failed to homer in his first at-bat, let alone the game. In his second game, however, Acuna made his presence felt in more ways than one at Great American Ballpark. The sensation from Venezuela hit a towering home run to left field as part of a three-hit performance, which was capped by a game-winning hit.
Acuna went on to be the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year. He was arguably the best player in the second half of the season in all of baseball. The phenom even hit a grand slam in the NLDS.
What has transpired since that fateful day in Cincinnati is nothing short of symbolic.
The hype for Acuna was for good reason. But the excitement surrounding the youth movement in Atlanta is about more than just one phenom. It involves multiple promising talents. And that collection of youth may produce unparalleled success, even by Atlanta’s standards.
There hasn’t been this much excitement involving farm system talent since the Baby Braves movement in 2005. Atlanta saw 18 rookies contribute that year, which resulted in a division title. They also had Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Chipper Jones to go along with Cooperstown-worthy players Andruw Jones and Tim Hudson.
Those veterans got support from the likes of spry rookies Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Langerhans, to name a few.
2005 certainly looked like the torch was being passed. The legacy was supposed to continue. From the worst-to-first year in 1991 to the penultimate Baby Braves in 2005, Atlanta made history by winning 14 straight division titles. They have won three since, while recording a below-.500 mark five times in that frame.
Of all the promising young prospects during the Baby Braves era, McCann became the only All-Star (7x). Francoeur played 12 years as a successful journeyman. It was a far cry from the praise he received as a rookie, which was highlighted by being on the cover of Sports Illustrated in Aug. 2005.
So here the Braves are again with another promising youth movement. So many parallels can be made between the Braves of 2005 and the Braves of 2019, but there’s a sense that the current development is vastly different.
The most anticipated debut of 2019 for Atlanta has been the arrival of 3B Austin Riley. The Braves’ highly-regarded prospect was stuck in Triple-A for the first couple of months due to the production of Atlanta’s bench and the fact that they have a former MVP and elite defensive 3B Josh Donaldson at the hot corner.
Something had to give, and ultimately it was Ender Inciarte’s back. The veteran outfielder remains on the IL with a lumbar strain.
Riley was making a mockery of AAA before being called up on May 15. Through 37 games, the Memphis native had an IL-leading 15 HR with a .299 BA and 1.057 OPS.
In just a week and a half, Riley has gone beyond expectations.
— Kevin McAlpin (@KevinMcAlpin) May 25, 2019
What’s even more impressive, the prospect has played the majority of the time out of his natural position. Riley has started 10 games in left field. While there may be a learning curve defensively, Riley’s bat is too good to put down.
Regardless of Inciarte’s health, the Braves are inclined to keep Riley on the field until the league catches up. If that even happens. Riley is slashing .341/.370/.727 with an OPS of 1.097 in 11 Big League games.
The only thing that separates Max Fried from any of the other young stars is the fact that he wasn’t hand-picked produce.
Fried came over to Atlanta’s farm system via the Justin Upton trade in the 2014-15 offseason. Ironically enough, the Braves’ 2015 first round pick came from the Padres just months later when Atlanta traded Craig Kimbrel and B.J. Upton to San Diego. The Braves used that pick on the aforementioned Riley.
Now, back to Fried.
In 12 games, the kid from Santa Monica has bolstered a 7-2 record to go along with a 2.88 ERA. He may look tremendously young, but Fried has MLB experience dating back to 2017. He lost his rookie status last year.
Make no mistake about it, though, he is a baby-faced killer.
According to baseballsavant, Fried’s curveball drops with an alarming spin rate. Couple that 12-to-6 action, with an effective fastball and most batters end up like Brandon Crawford.
Perhaps the most impressive youngster of 2019 is Mike Soroka. The 21-year-old is making light work out of MLB opponents so far through eight games this season.
The Canadian, or Maple Maddux, as some have proclaimed, has a 5-1 record with 1.07 ERA. He already has a WAR of 2.0 and is setting himself up to be the Braves’ ace going forward.
Soroka looks long removed from the shoulder surgery that placed him on the 60-day DL in 2018. After being put on the shelf from last summer until spring, Soroka started late in 2019 and didn’t see his first MLB start of 2019 until April 18. Since, he has been quietly brilliant. His season debut was his only loss.
Mike Soroka is the 1st pitcher since ER became official in both leagues in 1913 to allow 1 ER or fewer as a starter in 11 of his 1st 13 career games.
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) May 26, 2019
Soroka, like Riley, was also a first round pick (28th) of Atlanta in 2015.
Can They Hit The Parlay?
Between Riley, Fried and Soroka, the Braves have an excellent chance of producing yet another Rookie of the Year. It would be the first time Atlanta has gone back-to-back with the award.
What’s also in store for the Braves is sustained success.
After locking up Acuna and blood-brother Ozzie Albies for potentially eight years together, fans were relieved. Prior to those moves, realistic fans had to operate under the notion that Atlanta was dealing with more of a five-year window, considering when the two were dated to run out of arbitration eligibility before the extensions.
GM Alex Anthopoulos has now extended that proverbial window, all while signing Ablies and Acuna to team-friendly deals. That, in itself, is refreshing for Braves fans that want to compete for nearly a decade.
The ultra-valuable parlay of the former international signings may just be the start of intrepid moves.
The Braves next promising 3B has a perfect opportunity to get groomed by a former MVP for a year without the demand of everyday play.
The two young pitching phenoms are on another world right now. With the whole league transitioning to less innings for pitchers, Fried and Soroka are on an even more even playing field. Of the two players, Fried has already been seasoned with postseason experience, ala last year’s NLDS.
The future looks bright for Atlanta and so does the now. The youth overhaul that has taken place over the past couple of seasons is paying dividends for the Braves and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Atlanta currently has seven prospects in MLB Pipeline’s Top-100 list.
Many more prospects are destined for Atlanta, and if not, they will be shipped for a piece(s) that can ensure another pennant race. All Braves fans know where that hole exists for said pieces. For now, Atlanta is riding a wave of vigorous magnitude.
The proposition is win-win for the Braves. Their deck is stacked. And unlike the Baby Braves, they may just hit on multiple young talents that can bring unmatched success to Atlanta for years to come.