Riley made most of time with Chipper, Washington in big league camp
The Atlanta Braves have been building for the future over the past three years. While much of the focus has been on the glut of pitching prospects assembled in the minor leagues, there are more than a few hitters making a name for themselves as well.
One such man is slugging third baseman Austin Riley.
A 20-year-old Mississippi native, Riley got his first taste of major league camp this spring. Armed with prodigious power, he turned in consecutive 20-homer campaigns and the team is hopeful that Riley could answer the third base question that has plagued Atlanta since the retirement of Chipper Jones in 2012.
While no one is expecting him to replicate Jones’ lofty numbers, Riley’s bat could make an impact in the middle of the order for years to come. For now though, it’s been all about getting comfortable in his surroundings this spring and spending time around the big leaguers.
“It’s been fun just being around the guys, the veteran guys really,” said Riley. “I’m just taking it all in. Chipper’s been in town. Fred McGriff is always around. It’s kind of cool to experience it all and I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”
The presence of Jones at Braves spring training is always of particular interest for both the fans and players alike. Many of the younger generation of players grew up watching him play for nearly two decades in Atlanta. Now they get a chance to don the same uniform and pick the brain of a Hall of Famer.
“He’s been around quite a bit, and I spent some time with him for sure,” said Riley of his time with Jones. “Really he’s just focusing on trying to develop my game as much as he can.”
That development goes beyond simple cage tips, fielding pointers and sage advice. Jones was one of the most cerebral hitters in the game. It’s one of the many reasons he earned a place in Cooperstown. That mental makeup and the ability to think along with the opposing pitcher is something Jones is hoping to impart to Riley and other young hitters.
“We talked about the game inside the game,” said Riley. “That’s the biggest thing that’s clicked for me with him is that there’s the game and then there’s the game with the pitcher. I tried to pick his brain and what he’s trying to do with the at-bat and that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve taken with advice from him.”
Already this spring, Riley has shown glimpses of the light-tower power that’s helped him climb the prospect hot sheets. He belted a pair of home runs among his five hits before being reassigned to minor league camp this week. Though Riley batted just .208 and struck out 10 times in 24 at-bats this spring, his growth as an all-around player over the past three seasons is evident.
Riley opened 2017 with High-A Florida and was promoted to Double-A in July. He closed out the year with a .315/.389/.511 slash line and eight home runs in 48 games with Mississippi. Riley followed that up with another power display in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .300 with six home runs, just one off Ronald Acuña’s league-leading total. Even more encouraging from Riley’s overall numbers, his walk rate improved and his strikeout rate dropped from his 2016 season with Low-A Rome.
As the competition has gotten better, so has Riley. With the physical skills already on display, he is hoping this spring will be the kind of learning experience that will prove beneficial in other ways.
“Really just getting that feel of being around everybody and trying to get that big league experience, but you know at the same time I’m just trying to be the best that I can and get better,” said Riley of his spring so far.
“I’ve got some more time in the minor leagues for sure, so I’m really just trying to take everything in, being all-ears to what everyone says and just enjoy it as much as I can.”
Though Riley’s bat gets most of the the attention, he’s spent plenty of time trying to improve in every facet of the game. Riley slimmed down a touch over the winter and has been working hard to develop into a solid defensive third baseman.
The former high school pitcher has the arm, but improving his footwork and range have been top priorities. He cut the errors down from 30 in 335 chances in 2016 to 20 in 326 chances last season.
“You don’t want to be a liability out there on the field, so you’ve got to take just as much pride in defense as you do hitting,” said Riley.
He got a little help in that department this spring. Spending a month in big league camp meant that Riley got a chance to work with one of the top fielding gurus in the game.
“Ron Washington has been tremendous,” said Riley of the Atlanta infield coach. “The first couple of days I worked with him I was like, ‘Wow, there’s so many things that I didn’t know.’ Whether it’s position with the glove, coming through the ball, whatever it might be, I have that much more room to improve. That’s the thing that’s going to make me that much better on defense.”
The extra time spent at the hot corner will only make Riley a better player and raise his prospect stock. The bat may take him to the big leagues one day, but the glove could definitely help him stay.
It will probably 2019 before Riley finds his way to SunTrust Park. Expect him to return to Mississippi for an encore to open the season. But if last year’s success is any indication, it may not be long until Riley is knocking on the door in Triple-A Gwinnett.