Braves’ Acuña gets quick start to year of high expectations

Atlanta Braves's Ronald Acuna Jr. celebrates after scoring on an RBI single by Michael Harris...
Atlanta Braves's Ronald Acuna Jr. celebrates after scoring on an RBI single by Michael Harris II during the 11th inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)(Associated Press)
Published: Feb. 15, 2023 at 10:56 PM EST
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(AP) - Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. has been cleared to play in the World Baseball Classic and was taking swings at the team’s spring training camp on Wednesday, getting an early start on a season with high expectations.

Acuña hit .266 with 15 homers and drove in 50 runs in 119 games in 2022 after sustaining a season-ending torn ligament in his right knee on July 10, 2021. Acuña played through knee pain last season and at times was used as the team’s designated hitter.

Now the Braves’ three-time All-Star is looking forward to a pain-free season with hopes of returning to his 2019 peak form, when he .280 with 41 homers and 101 RBIs and led the NL with 37 stolen bases.

“I’m just beyond excited and happy,” Acuña said through a translator last month at the Braves Fest fan event at Truist Park. “I think my face says it all. I think it’s beyond two years at this point since I’ve felt completely healthy, so I’m beyond excited.”

The Braves at first planned to keep Acuña out of the WBC. The team was persuaded there’s no reason he can’t take a break from his normal spring training schedule to represent his native Venezuela in the WBC, assuming he has no setbacks.

“Me personally, I’ve always wanted to represent my team and play in the Classic,” Acuña said.

A healthy Acuña is especially important as the five-time defending NL East champion Braves look to replace Dansby Swanson at shortstop and search for a starter in left field.

“I expect him to be better than the 2019 Ronald,” said second baseman Ozzie Albies. “When he went all off. I think he’s going to have a big year this year. ... Last year he came back kind of still playing not 100%. We talked to him and he said he feels better. He’s going to have a crazy year.”

Among other Atlanta position players reporting to camp early: Albies, 1B Matt Olson, 3B Austin Riley, CF Michael Harris II and OFs Sam Hilliard, Kevin Pillar and Eli White.