ATLANTA — Though the Braves won last year’s World Series without Ronald Acuña Jr., his absence has certainly been noticeable, as the reigning champions have repeatedly stumbled through this season’s first two weeks.
Acuña’s presence could have proved beneficial both offensively and defensively during a 5-4 loss to the Marlins on Sunday afternoon at Truist Park. The Braves haven’t won any of their first five series. While it’s too early to panic, it’s not too early to think about how Acuña could soon alter the season’s trajectory.
“That will be a big boost for us,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “When he comes back, our lineup is going to get longer and we’re going to slot some guys in some better places. Hopefully, that rehab continues to go well and we get him back and who knows what might happen?”
Had Acuña been around, the Braves might have gotten that extra hit they needed to avoid losing for the fifth time in their past seven games. Austin Riley highlighted a three-run ninth with a two-run homer. But the comeback bid fell short for the Braves, who have the same 7-10 record as they did through last year’s first 17 games.
“It always takes us the first three or four weeks to settle in,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Once that happens, we’ll be rolling.”
With this in mind, maybe Acuña should be brought back before his projected May 6 return date. Snitker said that date isn’t etched in stone. So there’s reason to wonder if the difference-making outfielder could return by May 2 for the start of a four-game series against the first-place Mets.
“He’s all over the place, getting after it and really having a ball,” Snitker said. “[This] week will be big, because I think he’s scheduled to play lengthy defensive games in like three out of four games. At the end of the week, I think we’ll have a really good read on where his body is.”
Acuña has gone 5-for-14 with a double and three stolen bases in five rehab games with Triple-A Gwinnett. He has served as the designated hitter in two of those games and played right field in three of the others. He hasn’t played more than six innings defensively yet. But his body will be tested as he will be slated to play deeper into games once Gwinnett resumes its schedule with Tuesday night’s home game against Norfolk.
“It’s going to be huge for Ronald to come back,” Riley said. “You’re definitely going to be happy to see him back.”
Acuña will certainly help what has been a porous outfield defense. He is expected to play right field, while Adam Duvall will remain in center and Eddie Rosario will serve as the primary left fielder. Marcell Ozuna will continue to be the primary designated hitter. Rosario isn’t a great outfielder, but he is better defensively than Ozuna, Alex Dickerson and Orlando Arcia, a shortstop who has been willing to spend some time in the outfield.
How could this have helped on Sunday? Well, Bryce Elder was erratic in a second straight start. But despite issuing six walks, the rookie right-hander was one out away from tossing five scoreless innings. His bid ended when Arcia showed his lack of familiarity with the outfield, dropping Avisaíl García’s fly ball in front of the left-field fence.
Things got worse in the decisive two-run seventh inning, when A.J. Minter surrendered three doubles. The last of those doubles was a Joey Wendle blooper that fell in front of Guillermo Heredia in shallow right field. According to Statcast, the ball had only a 27 percent chance to be a hit.
Offensively, Acuña won’t be bidding for a 40-40 season. But his presence in the leadoff spot will put him directly in front of Matt Olson, Riley, Ozuna and Ozzie Albies, who has traditionally fared better away from the top of the batting order. Olson ranks fourth in the NL with a 1.042 OPS, and Riley ranks seventh with a .984 OPS. Albies is tied for the MLB lead with six homers, and Ozuna leads the Majors with 32 balls hit at 95 mph or harder.
“It’s all good,” Snitker said. “But we’ve got to win games now and until whenever he gets here.”