The Atlanta Braves haven’t quite made the free agent splash some were hoping for, presumably at shortstop. The club is seemingly ready to roll with Vaughn Grissom and Orlando Arcia at the position. And though many people look at the team’s additions and losses this offseason and come away disappointed, I’m here to tell you that the team will be better in 2023 than last season, which was a better team than the one that won the World Series, partly because of Ronald Acuna Jr.
The superstar Venezuelan getting back to his pre-injury self will provide a more substantial boost in production than any single free agent could have. When he’s right, Acuna is arguably the best player in baseball. MLB.com even believes he’ll fully regain his form in 2023 with an MVP-caliber campaign next season.
An ACL injury and an unusual offseason due to the lockout hindered Acuna’s 2022 season. He slashed .266/.351/.413 with 15 bombs and 24 doubles, which would be a career year for some players but was a down year by Acuna’s standards. His .764 OPS was the lowest of his career… by a large margin. Before the injury, his average OPS was .925 per season, with the next lowest coming in 2019 at .883 — a more than 100 point difference. He was also caught stealing more times than any other season, leading the league in that metric.
Lost in the shuffle of a somewhat disappointing season for Acuna and the Braves, he was one of a few productive players in the NLDS against the Phillies, even after taking a pitch off the inside of his elbow. In Game 1, he went 3-for-4 with a walk. For the series, he hit .333 with an .812 OPS. It wasn’t enough to lift the Braves up but seeing him end the season that way was encouraging.
Moreover, he was still in the 92nd percentile in hard-hit percentage and expected slugging percentage, so the underlying metrics favor him. Members of the organizations are already expressing big expectations, and there’s optimism he’ll return closer to the pre-injury 2021 version of himself as we inch further away from his surgery and rehab.
In about half a season in 2021, Acuna had a .990 OPS, 52 RBIs, and 24 home runs… those are MVP numbers. Over his first four seasons, Acuna has slashed .281/.376/.550. In 2019, he flirted with the infamous 40/40 — 40 home runs and 40 stolen bags. The young man is oozing talent. FanGraphs projects a .270/.367/.487 slash line with 31 homers and 34 steals, good for 5.4 WAR, which would be more than double what Acuna contributed in 2022.
I’m not expecting an MVP-Esque season from Ronald Acuna, but nobody should be surprised if he turned in a campaign that put him in the conversation.
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