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State of the Braves: All eyes on Ronald Acuña’s return in the outfield

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Acuña’s return will give the Braves options in the outfield

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As Major League Baseball hits pause and we await the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Atlanta Braves continue to bask in their World Series glory.

With no transactions for at least another couple weeks, this presents an opportunity to take a look at the organization as a whole. With the Braves playing into November this past season, there was minimal chance to evaluate where the organization stands heading into an important offseason.

How is the roster situated for 2022 and beyond? Where is there depth and where could there be holes down the road? Next up in the series is the outfield.

The Present

It’s fairly easy to forget just how good Ronald Acuña Jr. was before the ACL injury in July. The 23-year-old phenom was on pace for an 8+ WAR season with an absurd blend of run production, speed and defense. It was heartbreaking to see Ronald carried off the field in Miami, and by all accounts his rehab is going well.

The only real question with Acuña is when he’s able to get back on the field. He had surgery to repair his torn ACL in the middle of July, meaning an Opening Day appearance would only be 8.5 months removed from procedure. It’s not impossible, but you can guarantee the Braves will take every precaution in the world with their franchise talent.

If we assume Acuña misses at least a few weeks (or longer), Atlanta may need to get creative to fill the three outfield spots.

The club learned from its mistake a year ago and decided to tender a contract to Adam Duvall. As we saw during the World Series run, Duvall is a remarkable athlete and is capable of handling center field. As of today, he’s the odds-on favorite to be in center on opening day. We know exactly who Duvall is — streaky, but capable of changing a game with one swing with his big-time power. I’m intrigued as to how many games Duvall plays in center field compared to the other two spots in 2022.

Outside of a superhuman recovery from Acuña, the only other current internal option for center field is Cristian Pache. While still immensely talented and young (23), Pache has really struggled during a couple brief stints in the majors. His 2021 in Gwinnett was not overly impressive as he needed a strong finish to the year to reach a .265/.330/.414 batting line. The defense remains all-world and the club may opt to put him in center field and hide him at the bottom of the order, but this feels like a big year for Pache’s long-term outlook.

The Braves are on the hook for three more years of Marcell Ozuna. Short of Alex Anthopoulos finding some team to miraculously take Ozuna and his off-field baggage, Marcell figures to slot in as the team’s designated hitter most nights. It seems likely he will also play the outfield on occasion to give others a night off, and the need may be increased during the early months as Acuña works his way back.

And yes, Guillermo Heredia and his pink pirates swords will return in 2022.

The Future

This is, by far, the best positional group in the minor leagues for the Braves.

We touched on Pache’s long-term upside in the section above. Drew Waters, while continuing to navigate the challenges of professional pitching, remains an intriguing prospect. Jesse Franklin, the 3rd rounder out of Michigan in 2020 Draft, moved up to No. 10 on the Talking Chop midseason top 30. And few prospects in baseball have seen a faster rise towards the top of prospect lists than Michael Harris, taken in the 3rd round of the 2019 Draft. Harris found himself at No. 3 on the Talking Chop midseason top 30. Here’s what our prospect team wrote:

“Harris is a five tool player that excels at almost all of the attributes. He has shown tons of defensive versatility this year, having played all over the outfield, and playing each one very well. He’s taken a serious step forward in his routes in the outfield, and he’s shown off his arm a few times. The Braves have a serious prospect on their hands and one they will take their time developing. It will be interesting to see if the Braves try to see him tap into his power a little bit more by making minor changes his to already fantastic swing, because he’s surely capable of hitting for more power, but as is it’s almost an embarrassment of riches to be able to have him, Drew Waters, and Cristian Pache as well as Ronald Acuna Jr, at just 23 years of age, all coming out of the system.”

Bottom Line

I’m interested to see if Anthopoulos pursues an outfielder once the league resumes action. Acuña figures to be out there nearly every day assuming he makes a full recovery from his knee surgery, but there are questions beyond that. How often can 33-year-old Adam Duvall handle center field? Is Cristian Pache able to take the next step? What happens with Marcell Ozuna? There is plenty to keep an eye on this season.