How Can Atlanta Replace Acuña?

Who can Band-Aid the Acuña-sized hole in Atlanta?

Unless you’re living under a rock, you know what happened last weekend: Atlanta star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his left ACL.

It’s an awful situation. For Acuña, obviously, Atlanta, clearly, and for baseball fans, maybe most of all. The 26-year-old superstar finally reached his potential in 2023. In 159 games, Acuña slashed .337/.416/.596 with 41 home runs, 106 RBIs, 73 stolen bases, and a league-leading 1.012 OPS en route to his first National League MVP.

Acuña typifies everything good about baseball. He and players like him are why fans practically pay a second mortgage for tickets, wade through traffic, sift through security, and pay for overpriced meals. He is worth the price of admission. And though Acuña hadn’t reached last year’s heights in 2024, baseball’s ceiling is lower without him.

Yet as cruel as his loss is, Bruce Hornsby & The Range were right: The show goes on. Baseball will move forward without Acuña, and Atlanta will face the impossible challenge of surviving without him. That means a heavier load for Matt Olson, Sean Murphy, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, and Michael Harris II. Without their North Star, Atlanta’s secondary options need to shine brighter.

However, Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s general manager and president of baseball operations, can’t only look to these players. Atlanta will need more from outside the organization to make it past the NL Division Series, let alone win a World Series.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: it’s next to impossible to replace Acuña. It would be a fool’s errand to think Atlanta could find one player to match him. Unless they would consider trading parts of the core they’ve built for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Mike Trout, no one player is coming to fix Atlanta’s situation or replace Acuña.

It’s something Anthopoulos knows and has had a bittersweet experience with. After losing Acuña to a torn ACL in his other knee in 2021, the GM remade the team’s outfield. In July 2021, he acquired Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler to keep the team afloat. The moves didn’t just keep the team treading water, though. They brought them to the shore of the promised land.

Each player contributed to Atlanta’s 2021 World Series win in different ways; Pederson slashed 429 with a 1.714 OPS against the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS. Rosario’s 1.647 OPS led the charge against the Los Angeles Dodgers and earned him the NL Championship Series MVP. Duvall clobbered a grand slam in Game 5 of the World Series. While Atlanta lost that game and extended the series, Soler’s home run in Game 6 put it to bed, handing him the World Series MVP.

To survive without their alpha, Atlanta needed a pack. Then and now.

One player who could compose it is Chicago White Sox outfielder Tommy Pham, and it’s clear why. Pham is having a strong year despite Chicago’s 15-45 start. The 36-year-old touts a .280/.311/.402 slash line with a .733 OPS, 109 OPS+, three home runs, and 12 RBIs. While his run production seems lackluster, he’s playing for the White Sox and only has for 33 games. Those numbers will climb, especially if he joins a contender.

Compare Pham’s 2024 numbers to his 2023 total. Last year, he collected 16 home runs and 68 RBIs with the New York Mets and the Arizona Diamondbacks. He can produce. More important than last year’s run production is his playoff performance. Pham slashed .279/.297/.475 throughout the playoffs with a .772 OPS and a 103 wRC+.

Likewise, he’s been a .313 hitter in his playoff career with a .846 OPS, six home runs, and 10 RBIs. Getting an established hitter who thrives in the postseason would be a welcome addition for an Atlanta club that’s fallen short in back-to-back playoffs.

The only slight challenge for Pham is his defense. Unlike Acuña, who’s played 427 games in right field throughout his career, Pham has played just 20. Pham has spent most of his time in either left field, where he’s played 608 games, or center, where he’s played 232. Regardless of where he plays, Pham hasn’t played it well. He has ranked below average in OAA every year since 2020 and ranked in the bottom-10th percentile in 2019, 2021, and 2022.

Even in 2024, Pham stands in the 31st percentile of OAA and 28th in arm value. His arm carries juice, but his athleticism and defensive value preclude him from being a difference-maker in the outfield. That said, Pham’s bat is worth the squeeze.

Atlanta shouldn’t have to apply much pressure to pry him free. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported the White Sox expect to take calls on Pham, starters Erick Fedde, Chris Flexen, and Mike Clevinger. Reliever Michael Kopech and designated hitter Eloy Jiménez are also on the block. Even Guaranteed Rate Field’s veteran hot dog vendors seem available in Chicago’s all-must-go approach.

Getting Pham makes complete sense for Atlanta, but he shouldn’t be their only target. Enter from stage right, Boston Red Sox outfielder Tyler O’Neill.

O’Neill put baseball on notice in March and April, slashing .320/.433/.693. O’Neill’s 1.127 OPS led the majors among all hitters with at least 90 plate appearances, and his nine home runs were fourth. Marcell Ozuna, Gunnar Henderson, and Trout were the only players ahead of him. In his age-29 season, O’Neill finally broke out.

Or, at least, he started to. In the weeks since, pitching staffs have corralled the outfielder. He slashed .151/.244/.301, launched just two home runs, collected five RBI, and struck out 36 times for a myopic 43.9% K% in May. O’Neill’s .545 OPS in May is ninth-worst in baseball among all hitters with at least 80 plate appearances. The worm has turned and put O’Neill into the dirt.

Who Is the Real O’Neill?

Given all this, why exactly should Atlanta trade for O’Neill?

The O’Neill who opened the season isn’t a mirage. Not entirely. Though the outfielder slashed .231/.317/.418 with a 105 OPS+ from 2022 to 2024, his 2021 season is something to cling to. In it, O’Neill played a career-high 138 games, slashed .286/.352/.560, with 34 home runs, 80 RBIs, a .912 OPS, and a 148 OPS+. He finished eighth in MVP voting. When healthy and at his best, O’Neill is an incredibly gifted player.

But therein lies the catch with O’Neill. Aside from 2021, he’s never been healthy. That streak already carries over to 2024. He’s had an injured-list stint due to a concussion and now knee inflammation has shelved the outfielder for the second time this season.

Maybe that still doesn’t answer the question, so let’s add one last positive to O’Neill’s profile: he is capable of incredible defense. He’s a two-time Gold Glover, winning in 2020 and 2021. He’s also posted a positive OAA in 2022 and his arm’s ranked in the 89th in the 90th percentile in years past.

Defensive versatility is another plus, with O’Neill playing 372 career games in left. Adding him would allow Atlanta to flip Jarred Kelenic or Duvall from left to right to replace Acuña defensively. It’s even fair to argue if O’Neill can return to his previous defensive prowess from just two years ago, he’d be an upgrade over Acuña defensively.

Like Pham, acquiring O’Neill won’t cost Atlanta the farm. He’ll be a free agent following the season, and Boston’s 30-30 record through 60 games doesn’t earmark it for playoff contention. Anthopoulos also has experience negotiating with Craig Breslow, Boston’s chief baseball officer. Just this offseason, the two worked together on the trade that sent Chris Sale to Atlanta.

If anyone can bring out the O’Neill from years past, it might just be Atlanta.

Should Pham or O’Neill not fit Atlanta’s needs, maybe someone like Detroit outfielder Mark Canha does. Canha isn’t a flashy player. He never has been. Despite playing 10 years in the majors, he’s probably more famous for posting about food than gaudy stats or highlight reels.

That said, Canha’s a steadying presence everywhere he goes. The 35-year-old’s been productive almost every year, carrying an OPS+ of 100 or better every season since 2019. There have been highs and lows during that time a .913 OPS in 2019 with Oakland and a .746 OPS in 2021, his lowest since 2015 but Canha hasn’t had a negative fWAR or anything close to it in a single season since 2017.

You Canha Count On Me

2023 isn’t an exception to that norm. Through 52 games, Canha is slashing .242/.353/.389 with six home runs, 25 RBIs, and a .742 OPS. That number is a regression compared to Canha’s .771 lifetime OPS, but only slightly. Canha has also accounted for 0.9 fWAR and is on pace to surpass his 1.7 total from last season. He’s likely to finish near the 2.6 or 2.9 total from 2022 or 2021.

As reliable as Canha is, he still exhibits growth, particularly in his batted ball profile. Last year, Canha totaled a 36.8% HardHit% with an average exit velocity of 87.9 mph. Likewise, he only accounted for a 21.8% LD%. All of these numbers are up in 2024. The veteran’s HardHit% is 42.1%, his average exit velocity is 89.3 mph, and his LD% has rocketed from 21.8% to 25.7%. Additionally, Canha is walking more while cutting down his chases in 2024, going from a BB% of 8.3% to 12.3% and leaping from the 78th percentile in chase rate to the 92nd.

Not all of the year-to-year changes in Canha’s game are worth celebrating. He is striking out significantly more, raising his 15.6% SO% in 2023 to 21.4% in 2024. That year-to-year rise is the ninth-highest in all of baseball. While a significant climb for most, alarm bells aren’t particularly ringing given Canha’s career 20.6% SO%. It’s a rise, but it syncs with his expectations.

A decreasing Barrel% is another trend. Despite hitting the ball harder and hitting more line drives, Canha’s seen his Barrel% drop dating back to 2019. That year, his Barrel% reached 9.5%. In 2024, it’s just 4.3%, putting him in the 17th percentile among all hitters. Correspondingly, Canha’s Whiff% is up from 18.3% in 2023 to 23.5% in 2024.

Some of these changes are cause for concern and cause Canha’s ceiling to be nowhere near that of Pham or O’Neill. However, his floor is extremely high and can be even higher when playing for a quality team.

The five highest OPS seasons of his career all coincide with playoff teams. In 2019, the A’s went 97-65 while Canha notched a .913 OPS. During his time with the 92-70 Brewers in 2023, Canha slugged a .800 OPS in 50 games. 2020, for all its faults, saw Canha record a .795 OPS on a 36-24 A’s team with the fifth-best record in baseball. 2018, the A’s finished 97-65, and Canha had a .778 OPS. Finally, in 2022, the Mets went 101-61 while Canha collected a .770 OPS.

In other words, Canha plays his best on good teams. And though Atlanta is struggling right now, the talent on their team leads you to believe they can still be one of baseball’s best.

Adding Canha to that collection isn’t as easy as with Pham or O’Neill. Though Detroit is 29-30, it is hoping for a playoff berth. Achieving that goal means keeping Canha, who signed a two-year, $26.5 million contract in the offseason. He’s seventh on the team in fWAR and fourth among all hitters. Trading him makes little sense for Detroit. Not as long as they’re at or near .500. If Atlanta wants Canha, they’ll need to wait.

But what about other players, like Los Angeles Angels outfielder Taylor Ward or A’s outfielder-DH Brent Rooker? They could find themselves on the market this season and arguably come with higher upsides than anyone mentioned.

And while that’s true, Rooker and Ward won’t be cheap. Even if their teams are on trains headed toward infinite nothingness, Rooker is under team control until 2028 and Ward until 2027. That significantly increases their value to a level Atlanta might not be able to reach.

Atlanta opened the season 26th in Keith Law’s farm system rankings and 26th in MLB.com’s rankings. The only teams behind them in both rankings are the Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, and Angels. The well is dry for Atlanta in a way it wasn’t even in 2021. Atlanta could get Duvall, Pederson, Rosario, and Soler because it opened 2021 with Law’s sixth-ranked system and MLB.com’s 15th.

Comparing Atlanta’s 2021 vs. 2024 Assets

Now there’s little Atlanta can offer that other teams can’t in negotiations. The lack of talent in L.A. and Oakland’s system is also crucial to understanding why Ward and Rooker might not be viable acquisitions for Atlanta. L.A. ranks 30th in MLB.com’s rankings and 29th in Law’s. Oakland ranks 25th in MLB.com and 30th in Law’s. If these teams are as barren as we’re to believe, why accept prospects from a system only mildly better than yours?

The bottom line is Rooker or Ward only go to Atlanta if L.A. or Oakland prefer their prospects over another. Logically, Atlanta doesn’t have what it takes.

Knowing it can’t outbid anyone, what if Atlanta sticks with its internal options? Who can it look toward from within? Duvall and Kelenic remain locked as the team’s everyday outfielders, with Duvall getting the bulk of the starts in right since Acuña’s injury. Duvall, however, has struggled offensively this year, slashing .204/.293/.380 with a .672 OPS.

Even with the signing of third baseman/outfielder Brian Anderson to a major-league deal, Atlanta still has a hole. Over his last three seasons, Anderson is only slashing .231/.318/.362 with a .680 OPS and 87 OPS+. At best, he’s just below average. At worst, he’s a 31-year-old who couldn’t make Seattle’s offensively challenged roster out of spring training.

Luckily for Duvall and Anderson, no one in Atlanta’s farm system is poised to supplant them. While Atlanta elevated outfielder J.P. Martinez after a strong stint in Double-A, Martinez is a 27-year-old rookie yet to prove he’s more than outfield depth. Utilityman Zack Short is the only other player on Atlanta’s roster with outfield experience. That experience, however, boils down to two games in center and two in right field in 2023 with the Tigers. He’s not the answer, either.

There’s minor-league outfielder Forrest Wall, who has flirted with Atlanta’s roster. That flirtation was unrequited, though, with Wall appearing in just two games in April before being demoted. Past Wall, it’s slim pickings like veteran utilityman Leury García, who hasn’t played in the majors since 2022, and Skye Bolt, a failed Oakland prospect who now dwells in Double-A. Neither are on Atlanta’s 40-man roster and stand out as clear options to fulfill a part-time role, let alone Acuña’s.

And so, we’re back to where we started: bemoaning the Acuña-sized hole in baseball’s heart and wondering how Atlanta can even put a band-aid over it.

Josh Shaw

Josh Shaw graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2022 with a Journalism degree. He's written for The New Hampshire, Pro Sports Fanatics, and PitcherList.

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