To say the Atlanta Braves have lost some of their luster over the last five years would be an understatement. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies could change all of that.
The program spent the last few years trying to build a solid core, and talented pitching staff, and failed to do so. From 2013 to 2016, the Braves dropped from first place in the NL East, all the way to dead last. They saw a slight improvement in 2017, finishing the season in third place in the division, but still missed out on postseason opportunities.
To date, the Braves are currently at second place, very close behind first, in their division for the 2018 season. Though the Braves have strong players in Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman, the consensus is that the recent success is due to Major League’s two youngest position players, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies.
Albies signed with the institution in 2013, even after failing to make waves in the minor leagues. Signed as a shortstop, Albies moved to second base after the Braves traded for Dansby Swanson in Dec. 2015.
The 21-year-old’s recent success surprised everyone, after his performance in the minors was lackluster. He managed only one home run in the first two seasons, totaling six in 618 plate appearances in 2016. He hit only 16 home runs in 390 minor league games, the same number he hit in only 87 games in the majors.
Since Albies has hit the lineup, he’s played 62 games, and is third in the NL, 12th in the league, with 51 runs, and fourth in the NL, 15th in the league, with 70 hits. He’s had 30 extra-base hits, which is the most by a Braves player since Hank Aaron in 1959.
Acuna signed in 2014, and quickly became a staple. He joined the major league squad April 25 after comping up from Triple-A Gwinnett, and hit his first home run a day later. He has since made a mark in the leagues, with five home runs, 31 hits, 13 RBIs and 19 runs scored in 29 games.
The Braves weren’t the only ones to notice the raw talent. Albies became Baseball America‘s 11th best player in prospect ratings, also ranking as MLB.com’s 12th-best in the game heading into the 2017 season. While the 20-year-old Acuna went from 67th to first on Baseball America‘s list, then unranked to second overall on MLB.com’s list.
Albies has earned some early-season MVP rumors, primarily because he’s consistent at the top of the lineup with a team who’s scored 312 runs this season, placing them at first in the NL in runs, 11 more than the second-ranked team. Though both players are near the top of the batting order, that could soon change, as both players have the strong batting ability to hit further down.
The young superstars are a breath of fresh air for a team who’s experienced a large pitching slump. However, it should be noted that the Braves still have bat power with powerhouses Markakis and Freeman. Markakis, Freeman and Albies have made the top five in the NL for number of hits, with Markakis and Freeman ranking third and fifth in the MLB, respectively. Freeman ranks fifth in MLB for avg., while Markakis ranks ninth.
The numbers are important, but not the only factor. Though still so young, Albies has proven himself a strong team leader. As quoted by Danny Knobler of Bleacher Report, Braves manager Brian Snitker was quoted saying:
“He’s been the youngest guy on every team he has played for, and he’s been a leader on every team he has played for,” Snitker says. “When [manager Randy Ingle] had him in [Class A] Rome, that’s all he talked about. He’s a very charismatic, mature, intelligent young man. Just a neat kid.”
Acuna might not be as extroverted, but he’s certainly leaving his mark on the league, regardless.
Old in spirit and fresh in talent, Albies and Acuna are two big reasons it’s appropriate to discuss the Braves as postseason contenders.
Kristen Ashly is a senior contributor and editor for Nuts & Bolts Sports. You can follow her on Twitter @KristenAshly for all things baseball, horror movies, and WWE.