MLB roundtable: Would you rather build around Juan Soto or Ronald Acuna Jr.?

The 2020 Major League Baseball season is on indefinite hiatus because of the threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring training was shut down in March and Opening Day has been pushed back indefinitely. When will baseball return? No one knows for sure, though MLB hopes it will be early July.

Between now and Opening Day my fellow CBS Sports MLB scribes and I will bring you a weekly roundtable breaking down, well, pretty much anything. The latest news, a historical question, thoughts about the future of baseball, all sorts of stuff. Last week we bought or sold some proposed rule changes. This week we’re pitting two of the game’s young stars against each other.

Who would you rather have going forward: Ronald Acuna Jr. or Juan Soto?


Which NL East star outfielder would we most want long-term?

Katherine Acquavella: Having to choose between two of the best offensive players in baseball means there’s really not a bad choice. I’ll take Acuna for his athleticism, power and speed. At 21 years old, Acuna came three stolen bases shy of becoming the fifth player in MLB history to have a 40-homer, 40-steal season. I mean, that’s just crazy. There’s obviously room for improvement as far as his defensive stats and strikeout rate go. But, his speed and raw athleticism are strengths that give a slight edge over Soto. I also think that any concerns of Acuna’s hustle will fade with time and maturity. 

R.J. Anderson: You can’t go wrong either way. Soto looks like a generational hitter, someone who could hit .300/.400/.500-plus, with more walks than strikeouts during his best years. Acuna, meanwhile, has the chance to post a 40-40 season. I guess you go with Acuna because he offers more secondary value, in terms of defense and base-running, but both are tremendous building blocks who should have outstanding careers.

Mike Axisa: You pick one and I’ll happily take the other. I don’t see a wrong choice here, but since I have to give an answer, I’ll go with Soto. It’s hard to believe he turned only 21 in the middle of the World Series when you watch him play. He looks like a veteran in the batter’s box. His approach and plate discipline is that advanced. This was one of my favorite sequences of 2019:

Just to put some numbers on how good Soto has been to date, here is the OPS+ leaderboard through age 20 (min. 1,000 plate appearances):

  1. Mickey Mantle: 144 OPS+
  2. Mel Ott: 144 OPS+
  3. Ty Cobb: 144 OPS+
  4. Juan Soto: 140 OPS+

First of all, only 20 players in history have batted at least 1,000 times through their age-20 season, so simply getting to the big leagues that young is crazy impressive. Doing that and being as good as Soto has been portends all-time greatness. Among those 20 players Soto is third in on-base percentage (.403) and second in slugging percentage (.535). Goodness.

Acuna is no slouch either, of course. He turned 22 in December and is a career .285/.365/.532 hitter (130 OPS+), and he flirted with a 40-40 season in 2019. His defense — Acuna is slated to move to right field full-time this year, where he looks most comfortable — and base-running make him a better all-around player than Soto, I believe. He impacts the game in more ways.

I just can’t get over Soto being such a good hitter at such a young age though. As R.J. said, he looks like a generational hitter, a Miguel Cabrera type, so I’ll hitch my wagon to him. The bet here is Acuna has the higher peak — I could see him putting together a 10-WAR season at his absolute best — while Soto’s steady excellence extends over a longer period of time.

Dayn Perry: I’ll go with Soto. I definitely realize and appreciate that Acuna has more skill in the field and on the bases and is also an excellent hitter. However, I’ll take the guy who has already hit a higher offensive ceiling. In Soto we’re talking about a guy who put up a 142 OPS+ as a 19-year-old and then followed it up with a similar season as a 20-year-old. That’s a generational hitting talent. I’ll narrowly take him based on that higher offensive ceiling thus far.

Matt Snyder: Oh man. What a ridiculously tough choice. One of the biggest issues with trying to make this choice is that it’s such a guessing game and health might end up determining the answer. As R.J. said, Soto with his plate discipline and power combination has the chance to be one of the great hitters in this generation. He’s very likely to post higher on-base percentages nearly every year than Acuna and he did steal 12 bags last year, so it’s not like he’s carrying a piano on the bases or anything.

But, yes, I have to agree with R.J. that if we take the whole package, it looks like Acuna is going to be the more complete player. Make no mistake, Soto is a complete player. That prior statement is just how much upside I think Acuna has when we include all five tools.

I’ll also go as far as to prematurely say this: Both look like future Hall of Famers. 

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