ATLANTA — Ronald Acuna Jr. helped the Atlanta Braves accelerate their rebuilding schedule in 2018, when they were the surprise champions of the National League's East Division.
As the Braves enter their last spring training in the Orlando area before moving their preseason headquarters further south in Florida, the next challenge is to move closer to their first World Series since 1999.
Acuna was the NL rookie of the year and placed 12th in the MVP voting despite playing in only 111 games as a 20-year-old left fielder last season. The 21-year-old Venezuelan showed all the tools — power, speed and defense — that make him the next face of the franchise.
First baseman Freddie Freeman, the current franchise player who finished fourth in that MVP vote, said he can't wait to see what Acuna can do in a full season.
"I don't know what that guy's ceiling is," the veteran slugger said last month. "He is special. It's going to be fun to watch him play every single day. If he can stay healthy, it's going to be huge."
The Braves bolstered their lineup by signing third baseman Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, to a one-year, $23 million deal. They also added veteran catcher Brian McCann — bringing the 34-year-old Georgia native back to where he launched his career — and re-signed right fielder Nick Markakis.
Braves pitchers and catchers have their first workout next Saturday, and the team's first full-squad workout is Feb. 21. They plan to move into a new spring training facility in North Port, Florida, near Sarasota, in 2020; they have scheduled their final exhibition game this spring at the new facility on March 24.
They're leaving behind the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, located at the Walt Disney World Resort, after prepping there since 1998, when they said goodbye to West Palm Beach after 35 springs.
The Braves open the regular season March 28 on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies. Atlanta's home opener is April 1 against the Chicago Cubs.
Here are a few things to watch for during spring training:
A left calf strain spoiled Donaldson's 2018 season with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians. The Braves are gambling the 33-year-old third baseman returns to the success he enjoyed during the three seasons before that, when he averaged 37 homers.
"We weren't looking at third base," Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "We just wanted a big bat with power."
Still, Donaldson pushes Johan Camargo out of third base and into a super utility role. Camargo and former Calhoun High School standout Charlie Culberson provide excellent versatility to the bench, a weak spot in 2018.
McCann replaces Kurt Suzuki — now with the Washington Nationals — in sharing time with Tyler Flowers behind the plate. Replacements must be found for pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Anibal Sanchez, who combined for 39 starts last season.
Right-hander Touki Toussaint could win a rotation spot this spring. His teammates rave about his potential, which is built around a curveball that promises to be his signature pitch. Left-handers Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara and right-handers Mike Soroka, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright also will compete for starting jobs.
Third baseman Austin Riley may be the reason the Braves were interested in only a one-year deal with Donaldson, and outfielder Cristian Pache, an outstanding defensive player, is the organization's other top position prospect.
Ups and downs
Defense remains a strong point for the Braves, whose outfield includes 2018 Gold Glove winners Ender Inciarte Markakis and Inciarte. Acuna, who might eventually move to right field or center field, also is a strong defensive player.
Freeman won his first Gold Glove last year in his eighth full season in the majors. Ozzie Albies, a possible future Gold Glove winner, showed surprising power with 24 homers and is a lock to start at second base.
As for pitching, Mike Foltynewicz emerged as an All-Star and No. 1 starter last season, and midseason addition Kevin Gausman helped solidify the middle of the rotation. Otherwise, many questions remain about the starters, especially after Julio Teheran was sent to the bullpen for the playoffs.
Young starters unable to go deep into games could put a heavy drain on a bullpen that has its own questions. Arodys Vizcaino's sore shoulder kept him from handling the closer's job on a full-time basis in 2018, and 25-year-old A.J. Minter struggled with his control at times as he filled the gap.