Written by Ben Wilson Photos by Scott Greenwald
Overview: Drafted in the 1st Round (41st Overall), Atlanta Braves third base prospect Austin Riley has opened eyes during the 2017 Arizona Fall League. Scouts have been divided on Riley as a prospect since his professional debut, citing his dubious hit tool due to a long swing (K rate of 25.1%) and below average defense. However, Riley has done all he can in 2017 to silence those critics. The aggressive Braves farm philosophy of promoting their bright prospects has helped him. He put up a .900 OPS through 48 games at Double A Mississippi this past season. In the AFL, Riley has batted out of the second and third spots on a loaded Peoria Javelinas team. He has put up an impressive triple slash of .302/.362/.698 with 12 extra-base hits (and he currently sits second in the league in HR with 6) through 15 games.
With any first round draft pick, it is natural to assume a high level of expectation. Riley is just 20 years of age, so we also have to be realistic to expect a certain level of adjustment along his development. After all, 12 HR in 60 games in his 2015 rookie season is a solid accomplishment. Riley is currently a fringe top 100 prospect across baseball. Though without a sure fit at 3B long term (1B or LF remains in play), the depth of 3B overall across baseball, and questions with the hit tool, he remains on the fringes of the prospect ranking spotlight. Guys like Miguel Andujar, Michael Chavis, and for some, Lucas Erceg, are favored over the Braves third bagger. Despite stuffing the stat sheet in Arizona, there are still mixed reviews from reputable evaluators on his ability to catch up to elite velocity and higher level pitching.
Riley’s performance in the second half of the MiLB season, and in the AFL, make him a candidate for a major league call up next year. His adjustments at the plate, while still using a whole-field approach and flashing plus raw power in game situations, have people understandably excited. Eyewitness accounts have him looking like a big leaguer the way he carries himself on the field. Riley has a strong build, particularly through the lower half, and a body that looks like he can hold up over a major league season.
Riley is aided by the fact that the names at 3B from the 2017 Atlanta Braves were deeply unimpressive, except for the selfless positional transplant of superstar Freddie Freeman (to the rejoice of fantasy baseball managers everywhere with his increased position eligibility). With little standing in Riley’s way (apologies to the 9 third baseman who suited up for Atlanta this year), Atlanta wants to make it work for him given his recent success and first round pedigree.
Verdict: I like Austin Riley as an average to above average regular at 3B in a stacked Atlanta Braves lineup, with a debut in the middle to end of 2018. While he may not bat second or third like he does for Peoria, there is still plenty to be excited about if he is a sixth or seventh hitter in Atlanta. 25 HR to go along with around .270 AVG and .320 OBP seems like a possibility for Riley, and the Braves would probably love that. Given his stat line, and the similar first round compensation pedigree out of high school, someone like Nicholas Castellanos is a reasonable comparison. Like the 25 year old Castellanos, maybe we will wonder five years from now if Riley belongs at 3B, and if he will ever truly blossom into the hopeful first round star. However, what could really transform Riley to a star is continued positional development at 3B, and making sure the bat gets on the ball more often. These could push his numbers to upwards of 30 HR in a high water year. He might not be a superstar, but there are plenty of things to make you want to get on the Riley train. Get on board!