Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) hits a two-run, game-winning home run during the eleventh inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees Monday night.

The surprise team in the Major Leagues this season? No doubt, the Atlanta Braves, who finished 18 games under .500 a year ago when they won only 72 of 162 games.

Don’t look now, but the Atlanta Braves – strongly boosted by former Mississippi Braves – began the day with the best record in the National League, in first place by 3.5 games in the National League East. After defeating the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium Monday night, the Braves were at 49-34, 15 games above .500.

Rick Cleveland

If it seems a long, long time since the Braves have been in first place this far into the season, well, it has. The last four Atlanta teams have finished, in order, 17, 23, 26.5 and 25 games out of first place. In other words, they have been pretty awful.

They are far from awful now, and the Class AA Mississippi Braves, who play at Trustmark Park in Pearl, have been a huge part of the turnaround.

Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (1) is interviewed after he hit a walk-off home run to beat the Reds recently.

Just look at the Atlanta infield: second baseman Ozzie Albies, shortstop Dansby Swanson and third baseman Johan Camargo were all part of the Mississippi Braves infield as recently as 2016. (Camargo might have a hard time holding the third base job long term because of another ex-M-Brave, Austin Riley, a 20-year-old Hernando native, now at Class AAA.)

First baseman Freddie Freeman, who has become one of the most feared sluggers in baseball, was a Mississippi Brave in 2009. Hard to believe – isn’t it – Freeman, with 182 home runs over eight Major League seasons, won’t turn 29 until September?

That 2009 M-Braves team featured then-19-year-olds Freeman and Jason Heyward (now with the Chicago Cubs). Funny, how it sometimes works out. Heyward was rated the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball in 2009. Freeman, his best friend, was ranked No. 11. Heyward was so powerful, I used to go out to Trustmark just to watch him take batting practice. Hayward got most of the headlines here, but Freeman has become by far the more productive of the two as a Major Leaguer. Currently, he looks like a prime candidate for MVP.

Atlanta Braves Shortstop Dansby Swanson (7), one of many Braves who honed their skills for the Mississippi Braves.

Atlanta left fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., all of 21, might be the brightest young star of all. He passed through Pearl just last year, promoted from the Class A Florida State League to Mississippi and then from Mississippi to Class AAA Gwinnett. Here, Acuna hit .326 in 57 games before hitting .344 in 54 games at Gwinnett.

If Acuna, whose two-run homer beat the Yankees in extra innings Monday night, becomes the Major League All-Star most expect, then surely 2017 will be the year that sent him on his way. Acuna began the 2017 season ranked the No. 67 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Before this season, the same publication ranked Acuna the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. He has lived up to the billing, hitting .274 with seven home runs, despite missing a month due to a knee injury. (A good sign of Acuna’s value is that the Braves played just .500 baseball during his absence.)

The Atlanta Braves resurgence this year is a direct result of going back to a system of building the Major League team through its minor league system. The Braves, so successful for so long, doing it that way, opted to go more the free agent route under former general manager Frank Wren. It didn’t work (think Dan Uggla, the Upton brothers, Derek Lowe, etc.). All were high-dollar buys that didn’t pan out long-term.

Now, the Braves are back to building through the system. And, in professional baseball, the Class AA level remains the place where prospects either prove they can play or wash out. Class AA, more often than not, is the make-it or break-in level.

Brian Snitker, the current Atlanta manager, told me that in 2005 when he was managing the Mississippi Braves. I was working on a piece on then-M-Braves catcher Brian McCann, who was knocking the proverbial cover off the ball here.

“If you can hit at this level, you can hit anywhere,” Snitker said. “McCann will hit anywhere.”

McCann wound up that 2005 season in Atlanta. He has hit .263 with 268 home runs over 14 Major League seasons.

Some pundits have taken to calling this Atlanta team “the Baby Braves.” They are young, and many of the most valuable were nurtured here at Trustmark Park.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.