After a scorching start to the Minor League season in Gwinnett, 3B Austin Riley is expected to make his MLB debut tonight in… Left Field?!
The grumbling has been droning on in the background since Josh Donaldson was signed to play third base for the Braves in the offseason. What about Austin Riley? He was billed as the heir apparent to the hot corner, a position that hasn’t had a long term solution since Chipper Jones retired, with Johan Camargo serving as a placeholder of sorts until he was ready. Prior to the 2019 season, Riley had a grand total of 75 games at the AAA level and would be entering his age 22 season. It was fair to assume that he would need a little more time at Gwinnett to hone his skills before ascending to the major league roster permanently, but the signing of Donaldson seemed to indicate that unless the veteran 3B suffered a recurrence of the injuries that sidelined him for most of 2018 Riley would spend most if not all of 2019 in the minor leagues.
As winter turned to spring, the discussions in camp were centered around giving Riley some reps in the outfield as a way to provide another path to Atlanta, but those plans never materialized. He managed to get in one game as an outfielder, recording a put-out in his only chance. At the plate, however, he tallied the second-most number of AB’s of all players in camp, turning in a .259/.333/.407 slash line and hitting 2 HR. All in all it was a solid if slightly underwhelming spring for Riley, and as such he was ultimately packed off to minor league camp to begin his “seasoning” process.
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How Riley forced the issue
In April, Austin Riley got off to a slow start. He went 3-5 with a double and two home runs in his 3rd game of the season and then went 10 games without an extra-base hit, and 16 before he hit his next home run. In that span he managed a paltry .213/.280/.347 batting line and was essentially forgotten. And then, on April 25th, something clicked, and in a very big way. Riley homered in 3 consecutive games and he had multi-hit games in 8 of the next 10. By the time the calendar had turned to May he had raised his batting average from .213 to .293 and his slugging had risen 239 basis points to a healthy .586.
And he wasn’t just hitting wall scraping home runs. The power of Austin Riley was reaching legendary status:
All of a sudden, Riley was back on everyone’s radar (and his home runs were on NORAD’s radar), and it was no coincidence that he finally started seeing playing time in the outfield at Gwinnett. Josh Donaldson was proving to be much better defensively than many believed he would be, and his bat was showing signs of breaking loose in a big way. He was also proving to be healthy for the most part, so thoughts of Riley supplanting him at 3B were not gaining traction. The struggles of Ender Inciarte, however, provided a path for Riley to reach Atlanta. With every weak ground ball to 2nd base, Inciarte became a favorite target of disgruntled Braves fans yearning to see Riley on the roster. On Tuesday it reached a fever pitch. Austin Riley hit a grand slam while playing for Gwinnett in Buffalo, NY, and Ender did the unthinkable – he got hurt.
Speculation began immediately, and in the wee hours Wednesday morning, beat reporters began posting and confirming rumors that Riley was, indeed, being called to the major leagues:
As of this writing, there has been no official announcement, but since the Stripers are still in New York, this seems like as close to official as you can get:
So what are the Braves getting in Austin Riley?
Power. Raw, untapped power. Riley has been most recently compared to a 22 year old Scott Rolen, and just to refresh your memory, Rolen hit 21 HR and had an .846 OPS at the age of 22 for Philly. His glove was suspect early on, but by all accounts he is plays a very capable third base now and has not embarrassed himself in the outfield yet either. The big concern is the strikeouts for Riley, but during this hot stretch in Gwinnett even those have been relatively minimal.
It appears the plan is to let Inciarte head to the 10 day Injured List, probably with a rehab assignment to follow that, to rest his ailing back. Ronald Acuña will slide to center field, a position he knows very well from his minor league days, and Riley will assume the every day role in left. On the surface, it looks like this alignment might weaken the outfield defense, but all reports out of AAA indicate that Riley is very athletic and will not be a liability there. Of course, we all saw what happened to Rhys Hoskins when he was moved to LF for Philadelphia last year, so there is naturally some level of concern, but from an offensive standpoint he immediately makes the lineup more formidable.
I expect we will see a 3 week audition for Austin Riley in Atlanta. He will likely get a few games at 3rd as well as a few innings if not a start or two at 1st as Snitker provides rest for Donaldson and Freeman. Once Inciarte proves healthy in his rehab, the Braves will have a tough decision to make, but by then anything could happen. The only thing Riley can control is his performance, and if he hits like he is now in the minors there is little chance he will find himself back on the bus tour for Gwinnett for some time.
Get excited, Braves fans. Austin Riley is here!
ARTICLE BY ANDY SIMMS