PEORIA, Ariz. – The Braves aren’t likely to pursue a big-ticket free-agent third baseman this winter, in part because they don’t want to block prospect Austin Riley by signing a veteran to a multi-year deal that might overlap the anticipated arrival of the young slugger.
The other reason could be that none of the available free agents is enticing enough for the Braves to get into a bidding war. Not when when they are feeling better all the time about Riley’s potential.
The 20-year-old has played only 48 games above Single-A, but Riley’s performance in Double-A coupled with his impressive showing in the ongoing Arizona Fall League has some in the Braves organization thinking the former Mississippi high school star could be ready for the big leagues in a couple of years, perhaps sooner.
“I try not to think about that,” said Riley, who had eight extra-base hits, including three homers in his past five games, for the Peoria Javelinas, raising his average to .357 with a robust .810 slugging percentage and an AFL-leading 1.235 OPS in 10 games before Friday.
“Just try to keep developing as a third baseman and develop my (hitting) approach,” he said of his current goals. “When that (MLB arrival) time comes I’m just going to let it happen. Soon as I get there it’s going to be a great experience.”
Riley, whose slugging percentage was 129 points above the next-highest in the prospect-laden fall league, was selected to play in Saturday’s AFL Fall Stars Game (8 p.m., MLB Network). Fellow Braves prospects Ronald Acuna, who was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, and right-hander Touki Toussaint also were picked to play in that showcase game.
Braves prospects have created a buzz in Arizona, with catcher Alex Jackson leading the AFL in homers (five) before Friday, Fried leading the league in strikeouts (23 in 19 innings) and starters’ ERA (0.47), and Riley and Acuna (1.084) ranked first and third in OPS and each hitting over .350 with four homers apiece.
Riley missed more than a week with an elbow infection, the cause of which remains unclear, though he thought it might have been from getting stuck by a cactus on a hike he took with a few teammates. Entering Friday, he had played seven games since returning and was 10-for-22 in a five-game hitting streak, a surge that began with Riley hitting for the cycle (single, double, triple, homer) Oct. 26 – the first time that happened in the AFL in nearly nine years.
Riley showed his athletic ability and pretty good speed for a big man when he hit a triple to the right-center gap and never hesitated as he rounded second base. The 6-foot-3 right-handed hitter dropped about 10 pounds and played at 225 this year, and the weight reduction has helped Riley’s lateral movements and range at third base – he made a diving stab on the line to prevent an extra-base hit in the cycle game – as well as his mobility on the bases.
“I think my first full season I had 30 errors,” said Riley, who did, indeed – 30 errors in 122 games at low Single-A Rome in 2016, his first full season after he was selected in the first round (41st pick) of the 2015 draft out of DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Miss. “I was a little rough, and I cut them down quite a bit this year. I still just need to kind of clean up some things and I think things will be alright.”
He reduced his error total to 20 in 2017 and hit a combined .275 with 20 home runs, 74 RBIs and a .786 OPS in 129 games (542 plate appearances), including 81 games at high-A Florida and 48 at Double-A Mississippi.
Along the way, Riley has impressed Braves officials and some notable former Braves sluggers. Future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones saw him on a back field at spring training and said “that kid has light-tower power,” and two-time former MVP Dale Murphy was doing some scouting for the Braves in 2016 when he said Riley play in low-A.
“I saw him hit one over the scoreboard in Rome,” Murphy said. “You could just see it in that kid. He’s got good hands and just everything. I love that kid. And his (mental) makeup’s incredible.”