Ronald Acuna Jr. is back. The Braves announced this morning that they’ve reinstated their star outfielder from the 10-day injured list — the culmination of a nine-and-a-half-month rehabilitation process following an ACL tear sustained last July. It’s a bit of a surprise, as the Braves had been targeting a May 6 return according to manager Brian Snitker, though Snitker acknowledged at the time of that statement that the date was not set in stone. In a corresponding roster move, Atlanta has designated outfielder Alex Dickerson for assignment.
The 24-year-old Acuna is one of the game’s most dynamic talents and effectively has been since the moment he reached the Majors as a 21-year-old in 2018. Shaking off a rough couple of weeks to begin that original MLB promotion, Acuna went on an absolute tear and finished out the ’18 campaign as the near-unanimous Rookie of the Year winner, claiming 27 of 30 first-place votes (with two going to Juan Soto and one going to Walker Buehler).
Acuna slugged 26 homers and swiped 16 bases as a rookie, hitting at a .293/.366/.552 clip along the way. He’s kept that pace in the three seasons since that time, and will come off the injured list looking to build on a .281/.376/.549 career batting line and add to his already impressive total of 105 big league home runs (to say nothing of 78 doubles, seven triples and 78 steals).
While some fans may worry that Acuna is being rushed back to the big leagues, he certainly hasn’t shown any rust in his limited work with Triple-A Gwinnett so far. It’s only six games and 25 plate appearances, but Acuna is 7-for-19 with a double, six walks and three stolen bases (in three tries), which certainly paints the picture of someone whose major knee injury is firmly behind him. And, given that the Braves’ outfield is producing — or rather, failing to produce — at an alarming level, Atlanta brass has opted to proactively make a move to inject some life into the offense.
Marcell Ozuna has gotten out to a nice start in left field, hitting .257/.291/.486 with four homers and five doubles on the year. It’s a bit light in the OBP department, but the power production has generally offset Ozuna’s lack of walks. The rest of the Atlanta outfield, however, has been nothing short of a disaster. Adam Duvall is hitting .197/.250/.258 in 72 plate appearances. Eddie Rosario batted .068/.163/.091 in 49 plate appearances before undergoing an eye procedure that’ll sideline him for up to 12 weeks. Guillermo Heredia is hitting .158/.273/.368 in 22 plate appearances. The Braves have gotten some production in small samples from infielder-turned-utilityman Orlando Arcia and train prospect Travis Demerittebut it’s clear that the current group wasn’t sufficient for a team with designs on defending a World Series championship.
Dickerson, at whose expense Acuna is returning, was also a notable culprit when it comes to the Braves’ general lack of offense. Signed late in spring to a one-year deal, he’s been used primarily as a designated hitter against right-handed pitching but has gone just 4-for-33 with one extra-base hit (a homer) while punching out in a quarter of his 36 flat appearances.
The 31-year-old Dickerson has generally been a productive hitter in his big league career when healthy, though that health caveat has loomed large. Dickerson was out for the entirety of the 2017-18 seasons thanks to Tommy John surgery and back surgery, and he’s spent considerable time on the injured list even during his active seasons. Dating back to the 2019 campaign, he’s been sent to the injured list with wrist, shoulder, oblique, hamstring and back injuries.
Dickerson was a revelation for the 2019-20 Giants after going from San Diego to San Francisco in exchange for minor league reliever Franklin Van Gurp. In 341 plate appearances with the Giants over those two seasons, he raked at a .294/.361/.552 clip, mashing 16 home runs, 23 doubles and four triples while walking at a solid 8.5% clip and striking out in 19.1% of his plate appearances (a good bit south of the league average). Dickerson’s 2021 season, however, included a trio of IL stints due to a shoulder strain, a back strain and a hamstring strain. He posted a diminished .233/.304/.420 slash last season and has yet to right the ship so far in 2022.
The Braves will have a week to trade Dickerson, place him on outright waivers or release him. Given his track record and an affordable $1MM salary on his 2022 contract, it’s possible another club will take a look. It’s equally, if not more plausible, however, that teams will simply wait for Dickerson to clear waivers and hope to sign him as a free agent. Because he has more than five years of MLB service time, Dickerson can reject an assignment to the minors upon clearing waivers and still retain his salary.