Not long ago there were questions whether third baseman Austin Riley and catcher Alex Jackson, the Braves’ top power-hitting prospects not named Ronald Acuna, were good enough defensively to eventually play those positions in the majors.
But Riley over the past two years, and Jackson since the Braves got him in a November 2016 trade, have each slimmed down and toned up while working diligently on defense. If there remain doubters as to whether Riley can stay at third base and Jackson can be a big-league catcher, said skeptics are far fewer and seemingly don’t include anyone in the Braves organization.
Legendary former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones watched Riley play in the minors last season and has seen him this spring. He likes the development from the 20-year old, who was a first-round draft pick in 2015 out of DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Miss.
“I was just talking to Freddie (Freeman) about that,” Jones said. “(Riley) is a kid that’s always going to hit; his bat is going to get him to the big leagues. But he’s made himself into a pretty athletic third baseman. I got a chance to see him down in Mississippi last year and he’s really, really come a long way defensively.”
Riley hit .275 with 20 home runs and a .786 OPS in a combined 129 games last season at high Single-A Florida and Double-A Mississippi. However, it was what he did after the promotion to Mississippi that drew attention. In 48 games in Double-A, he hit .315 with 18 extra-base hits, a .389 OBP and .511 slugging percentage (.900 OPS) as one of the youngest players in the league. And did it while playing solid defense.
“Third base is where you want to see him play,” Jones said. “I guess he could probably move to a corner outfield at some point, but man, I think he’s got the ability to be a good quality defender over there at third base. I liken him to a (Bob) Horner-type of hitter, you know? Going to go out and hit you .275-.280, but he’s going to leave the year 25 to 30 times. Which is what you want out of your corner guys.
“We solidify him defensively and keep working on his footwork and I think he’s going to be OK over there.”
There was talk when the Braves drafted him that Riley was a little too thick or not quick enough with his feet to play third base long term, but he’s shed pounds without losing any muscle. His movements around the base have improved significantly. And the epic batting-practice displays that he and Jackson put on in the Arizona Fall League were must-see viewing for teammates and opponents alike.
“I’m excited to see him play third,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before Riley’s first Grapefruit League start at third base Sunday against the Nationals. “I love watching him hit. I love to see him get in that batter’s box, man. It’s pretty cool, actually. Him, Jackson, Acuna when they get here – that’s what our big-league BP is going to look like. ... This kid (Riley) has a chance of being an animal.”
Jones came back from a backfield after watching Riley during 2016 minor league spring training and said, “He’s got light-tower power.”
He’s seen Riley play several times since.
“He’s an offensive force; the bat plays,” Jones said. “We’ve got to solidify him defensively and he’ll be fine. He made some serious strides last year. I went down and watched him in a (Double-A) series against Pensacola, and they had the Nick Senzel kid from Cincinnati (Baseball America’s No. 2 third-base prospect). And (Riley) outplayed him at third base.
“Granted, that’s only three games, but he made some outstanding plays. Some slow rollers where his footwork and his hands were good. Made a great diving play down the line, got to his knees and threw a guy out from his knees. So he’s got the arm strength to play over there. It’s there, it just takes some time for it to consistently get to the point where he can play up here.”
Jackson was a high school All-America catcher, the best prep power hitter in the draft when the Mariners made him the sixth overall pick in 2014. They immediately moved him to the outfield, figuring that Jackson could make it to the majors faster there than as a catcher.
The plan didn’t work. He struggled defensively and didn’t hit as expected in the minors. Seattle traded him to the Braves 15 months ago after Jackson hit .243 with 11 homers and a .743 OPS in 2016 in his second season in high-A.
The Braves asked him what he thought about moving back to catcher and Jackson said he’d do whatever they needed. Then he fully committed himself to the position change, impressing pitchers, coaches and instructors last season with his hard work and his attention to detail while meeting with pitchers and going over plans and tendencies.
The strong-armed slugger slimmed down some, moved well behind the plate when blocking pitches, and showed a strong arm and steadily improving pitch-framing abilities.
Braves pitchers including Max Fried, who had Jackson as a teammate at Double-A and again in the Arizona Fall League, said one would could tell that Jackson had spent 2½ seasons away from catching by watching him catch a game last year.
Oh, and Jackson had easily his best season offensively, batting a combined .267 with a career-best 19 homers and an .808 OPS in 96 games (402 plate appearances) in high-A and Double-A.
“I really like Jackson,” Snitker said after starting him in Saturday’s game against the Astros. “That’s the first time I’ve got to see him catch, and he blocked the ball really well, received the ball really well. I was very pleasantly pleased with what I saw out of him. I was kind of hoping (they’d) run because I wanted to see him throw. But I thought he handled himself, received the ball, blocked the ball really well. Really well….
“I’ve been excited to see him catch all winter. I like what I’ve seen, just the live (batting practices early in spring training) and everything. I think everybody kind of feels like there’s some things he’s got to clean up probably and get better at, from just being away from it (for 2½ seasons), but shoot, you like what you see out of that young kid – a lot. He’s an impressive young guy.
“He’s an interesting kid to talk to and have a conversation with, too. He’s a real mature kid, bright.”
A year ago the Braves were beginning the transition of Jackson back to catcher, not quite sure what to expect. Now….
“Looking at him, I don’t think he’s that far away,” Snitker said.