When the 2017 season started, Braves outfield prospect Ronald Acuna was a teenager with a world of potential who had less than 150 at-bats at a full-season level. By year's end, he was still a teenager, playing all season at age 19, but had made a huge step forward -- three, actually -- in fulfilling that potential.
For playing across three levels of Atlanta's system and finishing with a 20-40 season to go along with a combined .325/.374/.522 line, Acuna is MLBPipeline.com's choice for 2017 Hitting Prospect of the Year.
The award is given annually to the top hitting prospect in baseball. Nominees are determined and voted on by the MLBPipeline.com staff. Players must have spent at least half the season in the Minor Leagues to be considered.
The teenaged phenom, currently ranked No. 1 on the Braves' Top 30 Prospects list, wasn't on the Top 100 prospect rankings when the year began, an oversight that was corrected as an early-year replacement. When the list was updated in July, Acuna shot up to No. 8. He's No. 7 on the list now thanks to the graduation of Rafael Devers, with many feeling the Braves outfielder is the best prospect in the game.
"We do feel he's the best prospect in baseball, but obviously we are biased," Braves general manager John Coppolella said. "Every tool is plus with Ronald and he's had so much success at upper levels at such a young age. He's got a terrific ability to adapt and a special makeup."
There were other prospects who deserved consideration for this honor in 2017. Devers, now the Red Sox third baseman, hit .311/.377/.578 with 20 homers and 60 RBIs in 86 games as a 20-year-old across Double-A and Triple-A before getting called up and providing a huge lift to Boston's playoff push.
Orioles outfielder Austin Hays made a huge leap onto prospect radars with a stunning first full season. The 2016 third-round pick hit for average and power in both the Class A Advanced and Double-A levels, finishing with a combined .329/.365/.593 line and earning a September callup. He led the Minors with 310 total bases, finished tied for second with 32 homers and ended up fourth in slugging percentage (.593).
A pair of Blue Jays prospects also were considered. Shortstop Bo Bichette led the minors in hitting with a .362 average and finished second in on-base percentage (.423). His .988 OPS placed him second among all Minor League hitters with enough at-bats to qualify and he did it as a 19-year-old across two levels of A ball. He created quite the tandem with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who also got a long look for his hitting exploits. Guerrero topped Bichette to lead the minors with his .425 OBP and finished with a combined .323/.425/.485 line, with more walks (76) than strikeouts (62) while playing at the same stops as Bichette, all at age 18.
But Acuna's dominance, combined with his ascent to the highest level of the system, was too hard to overlook. His season started out decently enough in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, though the real fireworks were yet to come. More than 3 1/2 years younger than the average hitter in the league at the time, Acuna put up a .287/.336/.478 line over 28 games there when the Braves decided he was ready for the challenge of the leap to Double-A.
He promptly responded by hitting .415/.467/.634 witih 12 steals in his first 21 Southern League games. He cooled off, understandably, in June, hitting just .232, but when he hit .375/.395/.700 in his first 10 games of July, the Braves decided to push him up the ladder one more rung to Triple-A Gwinnett. Acuna didn't blink and finished his remarkable year off by hitting .344/.393/.548 with nine homers and 11 steals in 54 games there as the youngest player in the International League.
Before that final promotion, of course, Acuna played in the Futures Game, and while he didn't fill up the box score, he did record a 112.3-mph lineout that was harder hit than all but two balls all year by Braves big leaguers (Nick Markakis, 114.4; Tyler Flowers, 112.8), and he created a buzz during batting practice with six homers. Then he made sure people realized he's more than just a hitter, with a 96.7-mph rocket of a throw from center field.
The scary thing is that Acuna is far from a finished product. While he did hit 21 homers and steal 44 bases in total this season, he also struck out 144 times and was caught stealing 20 times. Amazingly, though, Acuna's strikeout rate went down at each stop, from 31.7 percent in the FSL to 23 percent in Double-A and down to 19.8 percent with Gwinnett.
"We always loved the talent and person," Coppolella said. "Rolando Petit signed him for only $100,000, and when we saw him in Extended Spring Training in 2015, our player development people knew we had something pretty special. Acuna is blessed with talent, but he worked hard with our staff and continued to make strides to realize his talent.
"We talk everything through as a group, starting at the top with John Hart and me, and filtering across player development and international scouting with input from guys like Dom Chiti, Dave Trembley, Gordon Blakeley, Jonathan Schuerholz, and many others, including our managers at each level. We knew he would do well wherever we put him because he has so much talent and is such a special player."