Ronald Acuña Jr. was hopeful after his knee buckled Sunday afternoon that he had avoided the worst. The Braves‘ steals leader thought about taking third base on a throw back to the pitcher at PNC Park before reconsidering. As he made a quick move retreating back to second base, his left knee planted awkwardly and left him writhing on the ground.

Though the injury didn’t feel as serious as it did when he tore his right ACL in July 2021, the devastating results were the same.

The Braves learned Sunday night that, for the second time in less than 36 months, an ACL injury had cut Acuña’s season short. As the Braves move forward again without the reigning National League MVP, FOX Sports MLB experts Rowan Kavner and Deesha Thosar react to the startling development in an emergency roundtable.

1. Acuña is a unique and eminent figure in today’s game. What was your immediate reaction to hearing he’s out for the year after tearing his ACL a second time?

Thosar: Hard to put into words. Anytime anyone suffers an injury, it’s brutal. But when the handful of top athletes in the sport sustain season-ending injuries, it’s just plain heartbreaking. No matter what team you support, it’s sad to see Acuña go down with his second ACL tear in three years. It’s a loss for baseball, let alone an injury-impacted Braves team that has lost seven of their last 11 games. 

Knowing it took him around nine months to recover from the ACL tear on his other knee, the silver lining would be that Acuña could be ready by Opening Day 2025, when he will be in his age-27 season. But we’re still missing another year of a young, talented player in the prime of his career. Injuries are the worst.

Kavner: It’s crushing, of course, for the Braves and for baseball fans in general — but first and foremost for Acuña. Last year’s record-setting MVP season was the culmination of a two-year road back to prominence after he tore his right ACL in July 2021. He never really looked comfortable in his first year back, but a 41-homer, 73-steal 2023 season wiped away any questions about whether he could regain his form. He didn’t just return to normal — he reached levels never before seen. And at just 25 years old, after cutting his strikeout rate in half, it looked sustainable, too.

This year, however, started as more of a slog as he saw his strikeout rate and whiff rate climb back up and his hard-hit rate drop, but he remains one of the most dynamic players in the game — someone who could get hot at any moment and carry a team in the process. The Braves already lost their best pitcher in Spencer Strider and now lose the reigning MVP. They still have talent throughout the lineup to make a deep run (they did it without Acuña in 2021), but their chances of winning a title take a substantial hit, and the road ahead is significantly more treacherous now, especially with the way the Phillies are playing.

Ronald Acuña Jr. leaves game vs. Pirates with non-contact injury

2. Atlanta was ultra-aggressive in the aftermath of Acuña’s first ACL tear, initially acquiring Joc Pederson, and then Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall right before the deadline, all of whom helped propel the club to a World Series title. How do you expect the Braves to navigate things this time around? What do you think they should do?

Kavner: I would expect a similar approach. They don’t have to go all-in — this is a team set up to perform both short- and long-term — but there is some pressure to win now considering the questions upcoming on the pitching staff. Max Fried and Charlie Morton will both be free agents, and Spencer Strider will be coming off major elbow surgery.

Even without Strider and Acuña, the Braves still have to be considered among the top National League contenders — a testament to Atlanta’s lineup depth — but the position players they’re relying on most need to be better. Acuña was in the midst of his worst season as a major leaguer, and he was not alone. Matt Olson, Austin Riley and Michael Harris II have all been about league-average hitters this season. I’d expect some newcomers to add a boost at the deadline.

The Braves don’t have anyone who can replicate what Acuña provides. Even amid his struggles this year, his 16 steals are more than double that of any other player on the team. No one else has more than seven. The big move would be trading for Jazz Chisholm, but as their championship season demonstrated, the answer to replacing Acuña might come from a multitude of smaller moves. Would anyone be shocked if the Braves reunite with Rosario, who’s in a contract year in Washington? I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves give the White Sox a call about Tommy Pham or check in with the Angels about Taylor Ward or Jo Adell.

Thosar: It will take another package like the one general manager Alex Anthopoulos put together in 2021 to even scratch the surface on replacing Acuña. The Braves don’t have much internal depth in the outfield beyond 35-year-old Duvall, so I’m expecting the front office to make additions externally between now and the July 30 trade deadline. At the very least, Tommy Pham is the obvious trade acquisition on a 15-win White Sox team. Last year, Pham helped propel the Diamondbacks to the World Series and he’s still hitting the ball hard enough that he can be a difference-maker for Atlanta. 

But the Braves are already missing ace Spencer Strider for the year, third baseman Austin Riley is on the shelf and catcher Sean Murphy is on his way back from his oblique strain. The Braves need to get a bit healthier everywhere else before they can go full throttle on outfield acquisitions the way they did three years ago. In the meantime, buyers and sellers will become a bit more obvious, and Anthopoulos can get a better idea in these next few weeks of which impact players will be available beyond Pham. If Arizona falls out of contention, a reunion with Pederson, who has a .935 OPS this season, shouldn’t be out of the question.

MLB Power Rankings: Yankees & Phillies hold top spots

3. Atlanta has long been considered the most talented team in baseball regardless of its record. How much do you think this injury will ultimately impact the NL pennant race — between and beyond the Braves, Phillies and Dodgers?

Kavner: It’s huge. There’s still enough talent in Atlanta to envision the Braves in the mix for the National League pennant, but I think the Phillies and Dodgers have to be the favorites now. This should be a really interesting deadline ahead for a number of NL clubs, including the Braves, Brewers and Cubs, who might need to patch up some holes in their quest for a division title and beyond.

Thosar: The Braves had the advantage of being in first place the last time Acuña sustained a complete tear of his right ACL, so they had the luxury of taking a beat and figuring out how to proceed. This time around, Atlanta is looking up at Philly in the NL East standings and the club was already feeling the pressure to make up the difference before Acuña went down. Perhaps this could be the type of challenge that reignites a scuffling Braves team, particularly with Murphy and Riley set to return, rather than the utter domination that they’re used to in the regular season. So, I’m still expecting the Braves to be right in the middle of the conversation in the NL pennant race. The way this club is built, Atlanta is simply not going to collapse or even go down without its reigning MVP.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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