Braves Prospect Profile: Austin Riley
Austin Riley may not grab all the headlines, but he is steadily building a reputation as one of the best power-hitting prospects in the game. The slugging third baseman may even be carving out a place for himself at the hot corner for the Atlanta Braves in the not-too-distant future.
Riley, 20, was promoted to Gwinnett this week on the heels of another torrid stretch in Double-A. Now he is just one call away from joning the big league club.
That’s a call that could come sooner than later.
He slashed .321/.389/.570 with 19 doubles, 14 home runs, 47 RBI and 45 runs scored in 75 games with Mississippi over the last two seasons. That production gave the Braves little reason to wonder if he was prepared to take the next step and even less cause to put off that decision.
With half a dozen home runs and a 1.071 OPS (on-base plus slugging) through 27 games, Riley earned an early season promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. If he continues to hit, the next stop could be SunTrust Park.
I wrote extensively about Riley’s spring with the big league club. That opportunity afforded him the chance to work with infield guru Ron Washington and get some hitting instruction from Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
Riley continues to hone his skills at the plate and in the field, realizing the value that both carry toward becoming the kind of well-rounded player who could be come a fixture in the Atlanta lineup for years to come.
That, of course, is the goal.
Atlanta is not throwing up many stop signs or putting many roadblocks in his way. General manaer Alex Anthopoulos has praised the power-hitting prospect as a potential difference-maker and a big piece of the future.
I caught up with Riley this week to discuss his arrival in Gwinnett and what he’s hoping to accomplish over the coming weeks and months.
Grant McAuley: This is obviously a fun time for you, making the jump from Double-A to Triple-A here as we open the month of May. What were your initial thoughts upon embarking on this new chapter?
Austin Riley: I was actually pretty surprised. I wasn’t really expecting it at all. Chris Maloney [Mississippi manager> called me into his office and told me I was going up and I was ecstatic. This is one step closer to my goal, my dream and I’m just happy to be here an thankful to the Braves for giving me the opportunity.
GM: You’re a Mississippi kid, so playing for the Double-A club had to be pretty fun. Your family wasn’t that far away. Being there a little bit last year and again to start this year, what did you take out of that experience playing kind of in your backyard and also against that level of competition?
AR: It was awesome. The family was there every night; family and friends. The performance there was top notch It’s a good league to be in. I was just very fortunate to do well and able to do well in front of family and friends. Now, like I said, I’m just one step closer and glad to be here in Gwinnett.
GM: Let’s talk about the evolution of Austin Riley. We met in Rome a couple of years ago and that 2016 team was stocked. Some of those guys are doing well not too far from Gwinnett these days. For you, that season in Rome seemed to be where you made that first really big set of adjustments to put yourself on the track you’re on now. What has changed in your game over the last couple of years? Your swing, your preparation, whatever it may be.
AR: You know, it’s actually a lot to be honest. Defensive-wise, I’ve had a lot adjustments there. I was moving slow there, so working with Ron Washington during spring training was awesome. That helped me a lot, from little things to make my first step quicker and better on the glove. Hitting-wise, I was told that I couldn’t catch up to the fastball, which a lot of it was timing and trying to figure out my swing. It’s come a long way, but there’s always a lot to improve.
GM: What has been the biggest change or most substantial change to your swing to get that timing right and really lock-in to the grove you’ve been in for a little while now?
AR: Really, I had a problem sliding. My body was kind of sliding forward when I was loading as the pitch was coming. You watch any big leaguer and they don’t do that. So, that was the biggest adjustment; eliminating that. I was able to get my hands through the zone and being able to catch up to those fastballs.
GM: Well, the last couple of years have been good for you, twenty bombs in each of those years and making those defensive impreovements. Then you get an invitation to big league camp this spring. I got to talk to you a little bit then, but looking back on it now, how valuable was that experience?
AR: Very valuable for me. I think the biggest thing was just going up there, being with all those veteran guys, playing and having some success and knowing that my talent is good enough to play here. Just trusting my ability. I think that was the biggest thing. Knowing that I belong here and trusting myself, not trying to do too much and just going out there and playing every day.
GM: This organization is chocked full of minor league talent and I know we in the media talk a lot about the pitching, but the position player prospects are making a name for themselves as well. We know about what Ronald Acuña has been doing and what Ozzie Albies is doing, but yourself and some others are rising through the ranks. It really appears to be a pretty well-rounded minor league system.
AR: Yeah, we’re definitely stacked top to bottom. Alex Jackson in Double-A still, he’s something. They say light tower power, he’s got it. I’ve seen it plenty of times. Brett Cumberland is doing good stuff in Florida right now behind the plate. A bunch of guys. Cristian Pache at the futures game, he hit two bombs and that just goes to show what’s coming in the future.
GM: A lot of hitters have told me that the jump from High-A to Double-A is the hardest transition to make. Your numbers seem to tell a different story. Did you find that to be the case at all?
AR: Where I struggled the most is probably High-A. The pitching there, the guys that have what I consider the Double-A stuff, but maybe not the command. There are guys that are kind of all over the zone. They might get you 2-0 with a ball at your face and then they paint and paint and then you’re 2-2. That was probably the biggest adjustment was High-A.
GM: What are you looking to improve upon or build on in Triple-A. Is about keeping those numbers up and replicating what you’ve been doing?
AR: Definitely both. Always trying to get better. I’ve still got a lot of work defensive-wise and hitting-wise. At the same time, I’m trying to keep those numbers up.