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Spring training is here. Soon every team will be playing actual, honest-to-goodness games.
And in those games, across all of baseball, arguably no player's performance will matter more than Ronald Acuna's.
You've probably heard about Acuna by now, whether because he's the top prospect in baseball, the heir apparent to Matt Kemp in Atlanta or the one rookie (non-Shohei Ohtani division) who Fantasy Baseball analysts keep insisting you absolutely have to draft.
Indeed, he's probably the most hyped pre-draft rookie since Kris Bryant in 2015. And we all remember how that turned out, right?
But there's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect, and that's especially true for a 20-year-old. Acuna carries risk -- plenty of it, actually -- so while it's easy to call him "must-have" relative to other rookies, there are certainly stages of a Fantasy Baseball draft in which the risk outweighs the reward. The trick is figuring out when the scales tip in the reward's favor.
So what is the reward? How good could he be? Where should I draft him, Scott!?
Patience. We'll get there.
A player doesn't become the top prospect in baseball by accident, right? So the upside is high. That goes without saying.
But there's reason to believe the upside for this particular prospect is unusually high. I'd say once-in-a-generation high, but this generation already has that player in Mike Trout.
Speaking of ...
"If Acuna stays in center and maxes out his power, he's going to be among the best players in baseball, with a Mike Trout-ish profile."
Those are the words of Keith Law, ESPN's preeminent prospect authority who isn't one to shy from a controversial statement. Thing is he's not the only prospect guru I've seen make that comparison, and going strictly by the numbers, you can understand why.
In Acuna's (presumptive) final minor-league season, he hit .325 with 21 homers, 44 steals and an .896 OPS in 557 at-bats. Trout, meanwhile, hit .326 with 11 homers, 33 steals and a .958 OPS in 353 at-bats.
It gets better.
Part of what makes Acuna so exciting is the way he improved over the course of 2017 even while being challenged at every step. At high Class A, he hit .287 with an .814 OPS in 115 at-bats. At Double-A, he hit .326 with an .895 OPS in 221 at-bats. At Triple-A, he hit .344 with a .940 OPS in 221 at-bats. Even his plate discipline improved. His season-long 144-to-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn't look so hot, but reducing it to just his time at Double- and Triple-A, it was 104 to 35. So while Trout compiled his numbers at Double-A, Acuna's were just as good from the time he reached Double-A
But of course, if minor-league numbers directly translated to the majors, this prospecting thing wouldn't be so difficult. Acuna will be facing a sort of talent he hasn't faced before, capable of things he hasn't seen before, and while he has risen to every challenge so far as a professional, it's not like his minor-league numbers are the best we've ever seen. And given that Trout is already part of the best-ever conversation in our country's oldest pastime, comparing any prospect to him is unfair and borderline heretical.
Still, we're talking upside here. You'd be hard-pressed to find an actual flaw for Acuna just as he is, and considering what he accomplished as a 19-year-old last year, he's progressing at an astonishing rate. A more reasonable forecast than Trout might be an in-his-prime Andrew McCutchen or a Mookie Betts -- both first-rounders in their day. And if Acuna runs like we know he can, which is always a question for a middle-of-the-order bat, I have a hard time imagining him as anything but a first-rounder someday.
But someday isn't necessarily today, and again ... he's 20 years old. The history of 20-year-olds in the majors is limited and mostly uninspiring. Over the past 30 years, only 28 players have gotten even 200 at-bats at age 20 or younger, and of them, only 10 had an OPS of .800 or higher.
Bryant was similarly hyped in 2015, and the enthusiasm was validated. But he was 23 at the time. Those are three important years developmentally, even just in terms of physical maturity, and so while Acuna has conquered the same levels of the minors with similar gusto, it's reasonable to wonder if he's as ready as Bryant was at the time.
And you may remember the Cubs argued that Bryant wasn't ready. Now, we all knew it was a ploy to buy an extra year of service time. He was the talk of spring training with nine home runs and even filed a grievance in response. But he was up within two weeks and everyone was ultimately pleased with the outcome.
My point is this: If there was doubt even for the 23-year-old Bryant coming off a nine-homer spring, then no one can say for sure the job is Acuna's job from the get-go. Here's what new GM Alex Anthopoulos had to say on the matter, according to Bleacher Report:
"We're going to keep an open mind. We do feel he's going to impact us at some point in 2018."
Well, I should hope so.
I assume it'll play out similarly. The Braves will find a two-week placeholder, and hopefully as spring winds down, it'll be as transparent as Bryant's situation. But that'll depend on Acuna. If he bats .364 with six home runs, you can count down the days, but if he bats .200 with only one or two, well ...
"We want to do what's best for his development long-term," Anthopoulos said. "There's been some talk about how Dansby Swanson was handled and whether he would have had fewer growing pains if he had stayed longer in the minor leagues."
Even if Acuna proves he's ready for his first crack this spring, there's no guarantee he'll keep it up when the games count. There was a time when Byron Buxton was can't-miss and most certainly the next big thing. Jason Heyward, too. Jurickson Profar. Wil Myers had some growing pains before becoming what he is today, which is still less than elite. Even Trout himself hit .220 with a .672 OPS during a 40-game big-league trial late in 2011. If prospects are inherently a gamble, then a debuting prospect is a comparative Hail Mary.
But when the upside is first round-caliber? Well ...
Let's just say you don't have to pay anywhere close to first-round value for Acuna, which probably goes without saying given the risk. But his average draft position on FantasyPros is 137 -- or about a 12th-round pick in a 12-team league, behind the similarly unproven Yoan Moncada, the highly treacherous Ryan Zimmerman and Justin Smoak and the utterly boring Ender Inciarte. Granted, there are also players going after him I like better, but the idea of investing a 12th-round pick in that sort of upside sounds awfully appealing to me, especially when all the viable steals sources are going for a premium.
Now, maybe Acuna surges up draft boards with a big spring, as Bryant did once upon a time, but if so, he'll deserve to because he'll come with more assurances at that point. A modest expectation for him, assuming the Bryant timetable, is about what Wil Myers would offer -- maybe more stolen bases and fewer home runs -- and Myers is, on average, a sixth-round pick.
That's probably what a one-year investment in Acuna is worth, provided he has a big spring. Early drafters should enjoy this discount while it lasts.