Is Ronald Acuna worthy of top-five fantasy prospect ranking?

Atlanta Braves and the World Team's Ronald Acuna flies out during the second inning of the All-Star Futures baseball game against the U.S. Team, Sunday, July 9, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Ronald Acuna has captured the attention of baseball and fantasy fans alike. In addition to multiple Player of the Week and Month awards, Acuna was named hitter of the year by mlbpipeline.com and Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America.

He started the year in Class-A Advanced and was promoted to Double-A after just 115 at-bats. The promotion went largely unnoticed at the time. He had produced a .287/.339/.478 slash line with three home runs and 14 steals — solid numbers, but nothing earth-shattering. A 31.7 percent strikeout rate suggested that while the promotion was justified, he could struggle given his age and advanced competition.

As we all know, Acuna didn’t struggle. His slash line improved to .326/.379/.520, boosting his power (14 doubles, nine home runs) and speed (14 steals). His average walk rate inched up to 7.4 percent, and the strikeout rate dropped to 23 percent. This wasn’t just a small sample size, either; he totaled 221 at-bats.

The organization decided that instead of letting the 19-year-old grow, it would again promote him. The change in scenery did little to stunt the growth from previous months. His slash line improved yet again to .344/.396/.548. He duplicated his power numbers over the same number of at-bats, and his ISO took a slight uptick. The only negative was a decline in stolen bases. That however, was overshadowed by another decline in strikeouts – under 20 percent.

It’s easy to see why fantasy owners have fallen in love with Acuna. We all love 20-20 players. He produced a 21-44 season batting at or above .300 every step of the way.  I cannot disparage his accomplishments in 2017. However, I do think fantasy experts and owners are giving him a little too much credit regarding his future fantasy value.

Look back to the start of the 2016 season. Acuna barely cracked the top 20 on organizational depth charts. He did not rank in the top 100 on any prospect lists. An injury cost him over half the season, so his limited production did little to move the prospect needle. Fast forward to 2017: He went from “player to watch” to a top-50 prospect in just three months. At season’s end he is now universally considered a top-five prospect.  

I understand moving him up based upon potential, but that big of a jump after just one good season? Again, I’m not trying to take away what he did, but a huge leap seems irresponsible. We’ve seen plenty of players in the past break out like this. More often than not we took a “show me once, now show me again” approach.

Prior to this season Acuna was viewed as a future .280 hitter, not the .300-plus guy we saw in 2017. Based on the .400-plus BABIP this season there will be some regression. Granted, speed guys tend to produce a higher BABIP, but not .400. Strikeouts did decline at each stop. However, I can’t help but look at that 31 percent figure in Class-A this year and wonder if those improvements will stick. While he did steal 44 bases, he was caught 20 times.

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 12: Atlanta Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna (89) during the Spring Training game between Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees on March 12, 2017, at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

TAMPA, FL – MARCH 12: Atlanta Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna (89) during the Spring Training game between Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees on March 12, 2017, at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

Joc Pederson put up an 18-26 season with a .300 average at age 20 and went 20-30 the following season. It wasn’t until the next year — when he went 30-30 — that we gave him the credit he deserves. Rhys Hoskins broke out for 38 home runs in 2016. He did not get the prospect respect he deserved until he basically repeated this feat in 2017. Pederson has since been a disappointment. The jury is out on Hoskins, but the outlook is promising.

Those are just two examples of players who were ranked lower in their organizations and did not rank in the top 100. Despite one or several successful past seasons, we made them show us again that they were for real. Why are we hoisting Acuna up on our shoulders and pronouncing him a top-five player?

Willie Calhoun has strong walks, an elite strikeout rate, and 30-plus home run power, yet he has been snubbed from the top-50 again.

Ronald Acuna had a terrific season, but it was just one good season. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of players who have produced similar seasons throughout the years yet failed to repeat or live up to the expected hype. Acuna could be that special player who exceeds expectations, but he just as easily could be the next Joc Pederson or somewhere in between.

If I owned Acuna in a dynasty league I would, without hesitation, trade him to the highest bidder. His fantasy stock will never be higher than it is now. He can easily be flipped for any top prospect or even a package of top-50 guys. I would easily take Willie Calhoun along with Brent Honeywell or Vladimir Guerrero for Acuna, and I’ve seen such a trade already take place. You could even flip him for a younger major league-ready player similar to Hoskins or Cody Bellinger.

I am cautiously optimistic about Acuna. There’s no denying he has talent. How much of the talent we saw this year will actually stick — how good he will be  — has yet to be determined. What we do know is that he is now worth a small fortune. Take advantage of his 2017 season and hype.

Cash in now.

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