The skies have parted. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. At long last, our prince arrived.
Ok, well, it really only took 28 days. But the hype train that has been building behind #1 prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. has made it seem like ages. Thanks to some financial gymnastics and a nice line of corporate “we don’t want to bring him up when he’s struggling” what most would hope would happen on Opening Day 2018 happened on a random Wednesday in Cincinnati in front of a sparse crowd in game #23.
It’s a wait that Braves fans should be used to with highly touted prospects, however. Premiere prospect publication Baseball America began compiling a yearly Top 100 prospect list in 1990, and since then the Braves have had five names atop the list: Steve Avery, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Jason Heyward, and with his addition this year, Ronald Acuña Jr. Each of them had an interesting trip to the top of the list, and usually a more interesting trip to the Majors.
Steve Avery is the first legit prospect most of us 30-something Braves fans can remember. With good reason.
Following in the Braves long-standing tradition of going after prep pitchers in the first round, the organization took Avery at #3 in 1988. And, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, he joined an already highly touted group of young arms down on the farm. In a group that already included the likes of John Smoltz, and former 1st round picks Derek Lilliquist, Kent Mercker, and Tommy Greene, Avery shot to the top of the Braves prospect board in 1989. (Hey, relevant friendly reminder, not every top pitching prospect becomes a superstar, by the way.)
After earning top honors before the ’89 season thanks to his dominance of the Appalachian League, Avery didn’t slow down with high-A Durham and AA Greenville. After that season, not only did Avery find himself atop the Baseball America top prospect list for the organization, but he would also fall #1 in the publication’s new yearly ranking of the top 100 prospects in all of baseball for 1990.
A lockout would wipe out the majority of spring training that season, but the Braves would still keep the 19-year-old left-hander with the team for the camp that season. But still with the hype around him and the look Braves management had with Avery in March, the team decided he would be better served getting a taste of AAA before getting the call. With expectations once again low surrounding the Braves in 1990, there was no urgency in getting Avery up to the big club.
By June, the Braves sat firmly in the cellar of the NL West once more, the coaching staff’s heads already resting firmly on the guillotine, the call was made for the kid. On a random Wednesday in Cincinnati in front of a sparse crowd (Wait. What?) the prized prospect made his debut. As with most things on the 1990 Braves, his debut was less than optimal. Two-plus innings, eight hits, eight runs, three strikeouts, and after handing the ball over to legend Marty Clary, the debut was over. Despite the rocky start, Avery was here to stay.
His rookie season didn’t fare too well, sporting a 3-11 record with a 5.64 ERA on the surface, but his peripherals weren’t horrible and thanks to a 3.64 FIP, Avery would still account for 1.5 fWAR over 99 innings out of the Braves rotation. The following six seasons in Atlanta would cement his legacy, however.
Over the course of seven total seasons with Atlanta, Avery would become one of the best young arms in all of baseball. He would receive Cy Young consideration in 1991, become NLCS MVP in 1992, an all-star in 1993, and pitch win a crucial game four in Cleveland in the 1995 World Series. But unfortunately, thanks to a very heavy and taxing workload on his arm before he turned 24, shoulder issues would essentially end his career almost as quick as it began.
Somehow, someway Chipper may be the most interesting story of anyone mentioned here. While it seems pretty straight-forward — #1 overall draft pick, #1 prospect in all of baseball, most recognizable face to a fanbase for an entire generation, Hall of Famer – it got a little complicated along the way.
We all know the story about the Braves, Chipper, and Todd Van Poppel, so let’s start a little after that, shall we? Unlike Avery prior to him, Chipper didn’t burst out of the gates quite as fast. He struggled some in short-season ball with the Braves GCL team in 1990, and despite being the #1 overall pick, only entered the BA top 100 at #49 in 1991 – behind ten players drafted below him, including Van Poppel. And by this point, what was once a mass of pitching prospects in the Braves system had mostly graduated, leaving behind a hitter-heavy class for Chipper to compete with. Slugger Ryan Klesko would be tops on the prospect list that season and would be joined by Chipper, Tyler Houston, Javy Lopez, and Melvin Nieves in the Braves top ten prospects.
The 1991 season would be when Chipper officially made his mark. He would dominate the South Atlantic League with Macon, and end up bypassing both Klesko and Houston, landing at the #1 spot on the org’s top prospect list prior to the 1992 season. He would also make a huge jump up the Baseball America rankings, rising up 45 positions to #4, behind pitchers Brien Taylor, Van Poppel, and Roger Salkeld, making Chipper the #1 position player prospect in baseball for 1992.
Following continued success at Greenville and Durham in 1992, Chipper’s ascent to the top was complete with the 1993 rankings. Leading the way with the rest of the Braves elite prospect class, Chipper could now add #1 prospect to his achievement list behind #1 draft pick. And the season that followed would be more of the same. Following his successful campaign with the Richmond Braves, Chipper would have the least spectacular and least impressive MLB debut of anyone featured on this list.
As a 21-year-old defensive replacement for Jeff Blauser following a September call-up, in a 13-1 rout on a Saturday night in San Diego. Hoopla and hype, be damned. He would then find his way into a handful more games in the closing weeks of 1993, but none being high leverage situations, as the Braves were still stuck in the middle of a fierce division battle with the Giants at the time.
Despite adequately proving himself in 1993, and retaining his rookie status, Chipper dropped to the #2 overall prospect prior to 1994, falling just short of Montreal’s Cliff Floyd. But everything was still going swimmingly for Chipper, as he was likely to be slotted in as the team’s everyday LF before tragedy stuck in mid-March thanks to a blown out knee while legging out a groundball in spring training. His entire 1994 season was now a loss. Despite the injury, Chipper would still retain his rookie status while coming back for the 1995 season, and would again fall a slot in the prospect rankings, this time to #3. The new #1 was a guy named Alex Rodriguez. You may have heard of him.
The rest? Well, you know the rest.
If you’ve followed me on social media for any length of time in the past few years, you know how much I hate writing about Andruw Jones.
I don’t like to. I don’t want to. And even thinking about glorifying the man in any way makes me sick to my stomach. So I’m gonna make this as short as possible.
Andruw was signed a very highly regarded international free agent in 1993 and was only 16 at the time. Following his debut with the organization in 1994, he would show up as the team’s #2 overall prospect prior to the 1995 season. He would dominate with Macon that season and show up to camp in 1996 as the new #1 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America.
In May 1996 a shoulder injury to Braves RF David Justice left Atlanta running through a laundry list of corner OF options, trying to find the right fit for a team that was running away with their division. After trading Mark Whiten in mid-August, the call was made to bring up the barely 19-year-old Andruw to split time with fellow top prospect Jermaine Dye. Jones would struggle during his limited time up during the ’96 regular season, posting a 79 wRC+ and 0.0 fWAR. He also did a thing in game one of the 1996 World Series in New York.
The Braves hand was officially played. Following the trade of Jermaine Dye to Kansas City, Andruw was here to stay. He didn’t burn thru his rookie status during his time up in 1996, so he holds the designation of being the only person in this article to be the Baseball America #1 prospect in consecutive years.
He is also the only person on this list to be arrested for beating his wife on Christmas.
The gap from Andruw Jones to Jason Heyward is, honestly, a pretty dark timeline as far as Braves prospects. For all of the adulation bestowed upon the Braves organization in the early days of the dynasty, once things began to taper off in the early 2000s, the farm became pretty much a wasteland. There were a couple top ten prospects (Rafael Furcal, Wilson Betemit, Andy Marte) but overall there was very little to get excited about. Then came 2005-2007.
Over that span of time, the organization would draft or sign some very significant names: Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus, Julio Teheran, Jordan Schafer, Tommy Hanson, and a couple of guys named Freeman and Heyward in 2007. You may have heard of them.
Heyward was the local prep star. He was the next Francoeur, the next McCann. The local kid, drafted by the hometown team, destined for big things. That’s exactly how it started out. He dominated short-season ball after signing in 2007, and found his way all the way up the food chain at #28 in Baseball America’s rankings in 2008, falling just short of Jordan Schafer (#25) as the team’s top overall prospect. He wouldn’t disappoint from there, continuing to roll thru the Braves system, making stops in Rome and Myrtle Beach in 2008, on his way to jumping up to the #5 prospect in baseball before the 2009 season.
Then things got really fun. Heyward would hit all three higher levels in the Minors throughout 2009, getting better each step of the way. The end result was being crowned the #1 prospect by BA in a ridiculous class that included Stephen Strasburg, Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Freddie Freeman.
And on Opening Day 2010, Heyward gave us all what we were waiting for. Ask any Braves fan from 20-50 today what their favorite Braves memory is, and I promise you Heyward’s homerun off of Carlos Zambrano is top five. Well, assuming the fan isn’t some racist cretin who loathed Heyward simply because, well, you know. But that’s another article for another day.
Jason Heyward more than lived up to the hype for Atlanta in 2010. He carved his name into the hearts of an entire Braves generation based on how exciting he made a team that had been running very low on energy for a number of seasons. Unfortunately, his run would end up being far closer to that of Steve Avery than Chipper Jones.
An injury would hamper and slow him for much of 2011, and two freak injuries in 2013 would keep him out of the lineup for almost a third of the season. But when he was healthy and really shined in 2012 and 2014, everything was right with the world.
And then came the post-Wren firesale in 2014. After five glorious, successful seasons in Atlanta, Heyward was heading to St. Louis. While he found great success with the Cardinals, he’s yet to capture the magic since signing a big money deal with the Cubs the following year.
But we will always have April 5, 2005.
Ronald Acuña Jr.
And here we are. The present and the future.
Where does all of this leave us with Mr. Acuña? Well, based on the history of #1 prospects within the Braves organization, in pretty good hands. At least for a little while. There have been injuries and various roadbumps along the way for every player listed above, but each managed to find their own success with the Braves somewhere along the way.
We are only ten games into the Acuña era here in Atlanta, but given the skillset and tools he has shown over that time period, everything is there to be able to fill the shoes of those before him.