Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna 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.
Acuna 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. Acuna 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,” Acuna 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 Acuna 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,” Acuna said.
A healthy Acuna 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.
SHOOTING FOR THE STARS
New York manager Aaron Boone said it is too early to say if the Yankees have closed the gap with the World Series champion Houston Astros.
The Yankees kept slugger Aaron Judge, signing him to a $360 million, nine-year contract, and added free agent left-hander Carlos Rodon with a $162 million, six-year deal. Infielder DJ LeMahieu, who missed the 2022 postseason with a right toe injury, is expected to be ready for opening day.
Houston swept New York in last year’s American League Championship Series, the third time since 2017 the Astros advanced to the World Series by defeating the Yankees.
”We can talk about closing the gap but right now that’s all talk,” Boone said. ”We’ll see. We’re in February. We’ve got a long way to go to even get that opportunity to find out if we get to play in the playoffs and have that crack again. We feel like that’s our expectation.”
The Yankees haven’t won the World Series since 2009.
”I feel like every year that I’ve been here we’ve gone in with the ideal that we want to be a championship team,” Boone said. ”Feel like it was a reasonable goal, but obviously we haven’t done it yet There’s been some teams, namely the Astros, that have been a nemesis that have knocked us off a couple times, and they’ve kind of set the standard right now certainly in the American League.”
Boone said the Astros last year had ”probably as good a pitching staff as we’ve faced in any run that we’ve had in the playoffs.”
SETBACK FOR STRASBURG
Washington Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, a three-time All-Star and 2019 World Series MVP, did not report with other pitchers following a recent setback in his comeback from a 2021 operation to correct thoracic outlet syndrome.
Strasburg, 34, had a nerve-related setback in a recent bullpen session, MLB.com reported. He made only one start in 2022, giving up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings in a loss at Miami on June 9. His history of health problems created an uncertain outlook for his chances to return to the rotation in 2023.
Strasburg has thrown a total of 31 1/3 innings across just eight starts over the past three seasons. He had carpal tunnel surgery in 2020.
SORENESS FOR DEGROM
New Texas Rangers ace Jacob deGrom already has experienced his first physical setback with the team. On a cool day at the team’s first day of camp in Arizona, deGrom was held back after experiencing soreness in his left side.
General manager Chris Young said deGrom experienced the discomfort two days ago and said the decision to hold back the right-hander a day or two was precautionary. Even so, the development caused concern as deGrom’s last two seasons with the New York Mets were substantially shortened by injuries.
The Rangers signed deGrom to a $185 million, five-year deal on Dec. 3.
TEAM RUBIO STYLE
Mets closer Edwin Diaz reported to camp ready to represent Puerto Rico in the WBC. In honor of ”Team Rubio,” Diaz has his hair dyed blond for the Classic.
AP Freelance Writer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.
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