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Riley has work to do, but Braves 3B prospect is getting there

Austin Riley had two doubles and two mammoth home runs in 24 at-bats in Grapefruit league games through Sunday, showing the line-drive swing and ample power that has the Braves excited about the potential of the strapping young Mississippian as their future third baseman.

He also has 10 strikeouts including a pair of three-strikeout games, an indicator of an area where Riley needs some work before he’s deemed ready to take over at the hot corner. After going 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in his first three starts, Riley went 5-for-16 since.

“This is really the first time I’ve had a close and personal look at him – watch his routine, cage work, BP (batting practice), all of that,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “He’s a really talented kid. For me he had some issues that he needed to work out with his swing. He gets a little drifty sometimes, starts to slide with his lower half, has a tendency to ‘cast’ and get a little long. 

“(Catching prospect) Alex Jackson is kind of similar with the casting part. So I’ve showed them a couple of things to help keep them shortened up, and as the spring progressed it’s been really awesome to watch. Riley’s getting some results to go with it, and (at-bats) are getting better. I think they’re well on their way to being able to help us sometime.”

Defense is another part of his game Riley is still refining. He went from suspect to much-improved in the past year after a lot of work with Braves coach Ron Washington and minor league infield instructor Luis Lopez, who got drills from Washington last spring to use with Riley in the minor league season. Riley did those with Lopez and has worked one-on-one this spring with Washington. 

“Just from the time I got here to now in spring my glove has gotten a ton better,” Riley said. “Just little things that, you know, staying through the short hop and stuff, and continuing to work with (Washington), it’s been a lot of fun.”

After nearly a month in his first major league camp, Riley’s confidence has grown while at the same time he’s been reminded what he needs to work on to make it to the majors.

“Yeah, definitely know what I need to do,” he said. “Still got a lot of work defense-wise and approach-wise with my swing. Just trying to take it day by day and not worry about what the future holds.”

A former Braves third baseman of distinction has noted Riley’s defensive improvements.

“He’s a kid that’s always going to hit, his bat is going to get him to the big leagues,” said Chipper Jones, recently elected Hall of Famer and longtime former Braves third baseman who now serves as a special assistant in baseball operations. “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 ways defensively.”

Advice and encouragement from Jones, who was in camp for part of spring training, have been much appreciated by Riley.

“Because you have those times where you make errors,” he said, “and you’re like, ‘Well, crap, what do I need to do?’ And just him talking to me, saying I’m going to be fine and to just keep working, you know, it’s just a reassurance that I have the ability to play up here.”

He and other Braves prospects also said it’s helped that they’ve felt welcomed in their first big league camp.

“The veteran guys are making it easy to talk to them,” Riley said. “That’s kind of the big thing for me, coming in and seeing how they were going to react. They’ve reacted really well, with open arms, ask them anything, talk to them about anything. So it’s been good.”

After the Braves selected him in the first round of the June 2015 draft out of DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Miss., there was speculation he’d eventually be moved to the outfield, that the thickly built Riley might lack the quickness and lateral movement to play third base. But that talk has subsided as Riley, who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, has worked to become leaner while improving his reactions and movement around the base.

“I really tried to focus on my diet,” he said. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime, so you can’t waste it. Kind of taking that mindset and you know, all offseason kind of watch what I eat, work out hard. Footwork is probably the biggest thing that I’ve got focus on. Being able to stay with the mindset of, I’ve got the hot corner – it’s helping a lot.”

He made 30 errors in 122 games at low Single-A Rome in 2016, his first full minor league season. Riley reduced that to 20 errors in 2017 and hit a combined .275 with 20 homers, 74 RBIs and a .786 OPS in 542 plate appearances, including 81 games at high-A Florida and 48 at Double-A Mississippi. 

His stock ticked up after the promotion to Double-A, where he hit .315 with a .389 OBP and .900 OPS. Riley continued that momentum in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, where he hit .300 with six homers and a 1.021 OPS in 77 plate appearances and had a league-leading .657 slugging percentage, just ahead of Peoria teammate and Braves phenom Ronald Acuna, who was the fall league MVP.

Riley and Acuna are just 20 years old, with Riley’s birthday in April and Acuna not until December. Acuna is expected to be the Braves’ left fielder soon and Riley, if he continues to develop, could be ready to take over at third base in 2019 and possibly see a late-season call-up this year.

For now, Riley still has work to do, for as long as he’s in big-league camp and then after he gets sent down.

Riley had as many hit-by-pitches (three) as walks through Sunday and is getting a taste of what he can expect from big-league pitchers.

“They’re pitching him tough,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after a game last week against the Blue Jays when Riley was hit by a pitch, then hit a long homer in his next at-bat. “They’re pitching him like he’s leading the league in homers or something. Which is good, because he’s seeing a lot of early count breaking balls, they’re trying to speed him up. It’s been a good experience for him and he’s showing, again, why we like this kid so much.”

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