Braves' Ronald Acuña injury concerns could give Phillies early window in NL East

With uncertainty around the Braves superstar, the Phillies could have an opportunity to seize an early advantage in the NL East this season.

An injury to Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. could give the Philadelphia Phillies a chance early in the season
An injury to Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. could give the Philadelphia Phillies a chance early in the season / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

It must have been quite the weekend in Braves Country. While the Philadelphia Phillies were busy finalizing ace Zack Wheeler's contract extension, the ongoing story of Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. being sidelined with a knee injury dominated much of the headlines. It's safe to say there was likely much nail-biting and gnashing of teeth among Braves fans.

For the rest of the NL East, specifically the Phillies, the news out of Braves training camp offers a glimmer of hope for an early season opportunity.

The Ronald Acuña Jr. injury timeline

For those who haven't kept up with the happenings, here's what went down over the weekend.

The Acuña saga began Friday, when the 2023 NL MVP was held out of the Braves' spring training lineup as a "precaution" with right knee soreness. The plot thickened mere hours later when Braves beat reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Justin Toscano, reported that Acuña was getting his knee looked at by doctors. But as a reassurance for Braves fans, manager Brian Snitker said it wasn't an MRI.

Whenever news like this breaks, even if it's just precautionary, everyone's ears perk up a little because of the stature of Acuña in the MLB landscape. The 26-year-old is a four-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger, former Rookie of the Year and, as mentioned above, the reigning NL MVP, and a unanimous one at that. If he misses time, it's not good for the game.

But there's more.

Then Saturday morning came, and Toscano revealed that Acuña did indeed undergo an MRI, which "showed irritation in the right meniscus." And yes, that's the same knee the outfielder had ACL surgery on in 2021. Still, at that time, the Braves expected that he'd be ready for Opening Day.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopolous weighed in on Sunday morning, saying he's highly confident that Acuña will be in the Opening Day lineup. Still, Acuna flew to Los Angeles to see Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the same doctor who operated on his knee in 2021.

Noted sports medicine doctor Jesse Morse posted a detailed rundown of the possible scenarios Acuña and the Braves might face with this injury. The scenarios range from no significant damage, which might require a cortisone shot and return in 1-3 weeks, to partial tearing, which would mean 4-6 until he's back in action. The worst-case scenario is a larger tear too dangerous to play through that would require repair and 4-6 months of recovery, meaning his season is all but lost.

On Tuesday morning, we finally got the verdict; for the Braves, it's the best-case scenario. Acuña is expected to be ready for Opening Day.

Acuña's injury concerns opens the door for the Phillies

But what if he's not ready for Opening Day?

What if he experiences a setback over the next couple of weeks? What if the season starts, and the irritation flares up and causes further damage?

What if the Braves go into the season without Acuña anchoring the lineup? Sure, they still have a stacked team and would likely be favorites to win the NL East, even if he takes a couple extra weeks to get going. Even the slightest soft spot has to change how the Phillies look at the beginning of the 2024 season — a season in which the Phillies fully expect to challenge for the World Series.

As much as nobody likes seeing an athlete get hurt, especially one of Acuña's talent level, the reality is that his vulnerability opens the door for the Phillies early in 2024.

If Acuña is slowed at the beginning of the season and the Braves are less than 100 percent on Opening Day, the Phillies can start strong and set the tone for the division, which they hope to contest this year. As detailed by The Philadelphia Inquirer's Alex Coffey, they have already talked about wanting to get out of the gate with a strong start this year (subscription required). This possible window of opportunity only adds more incentive.

After coming in second in the NL East in 2023, 14 games back of the Braves, the Phillies themselves are finally healthy going into a season and are hoping to pick up where they left off from the final two months of the season. With Bryce Harper and Trea Turner firing on all cylinders, the Phillies matched Atlanta's offense with 107 home runs and were third in runs scored.

We'll have to keep an eye on the developments here as more details emerge about Acuna's knee and how the next few weeks play out leading up to Opening Day when the two teams meet for the first series of the 2024 season.