While the Braves as a whole had a very successful 2019 season, several Braves experienced a wide range of highs and lows last year. Dansby Swanson looked like an All-Star in the first half of the season, then could not buy a hit to save his life in September. Mike Foltynewicz struggled with injury concerns and poor production before the All-Star Break, only to look like the 2018 version of himself in the second half. Many others experienced highs and lows as well, which is to be expected for any major league team over 162 games.
Despite the annual occurrence of streaks and slumps, it is hard to say any had as drastic or sudden of a change in fortunes as Austin Riley. In his first 30 games as a big leaguer, Riley produced a .298/.336/.628 triple slash line at the plate, along with a .331 ISO and 11 home runs. He was a big reason the Braves went 21-9 over that stretch, catapulting them to the lead in the NL East Division.
While the Braves would continue their winning ways and cruise to a second NL East Crown, regression hit Riley, and it hit him hard. Riley’s production was obviously unsustainable; however, no one could have logically expected Riley’s struggles to reach the level that they did. From June 17th through the end of the season, Riley slashed .170/.237/.346. His ISO mark was cut nearly in half, down to .176. He struck out in 39.6% of his plate appearances. Overnight, Riley transformed from a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate to a liability.
Overall, Riley’s .226/.279/.471 production line for the season is not surprising. His 108 strikeouts over 297 plate appearances is a bit alarming, especially when compared to only 16 walks, but is fairly typical of a young power hitter. The specifics and duration of Riley’s struggles compared to his initial success may have watered down the overall opinion of him as a ballplayer. At the end of the day, Riley is neither the player that took the baseball world by storm for a month nor is he the player that looked completely lost at the plate in the second half of the season.
Something that many can be confident about with Riley is that he is a significant talent, one that should be highly valued by the Braves moving forward. At 22 years old, and with his track record, Riley’s potential as a power hitter is something any team would covet. However, with the Braves competitive window wide open, Atlanta has rightfully shifted its focus from acquiring potential to targeting production.
Alex Anthopoulos proved that point last year when he signed Josh Donaldson with the first big move of the offseason. Despite a breakout 2018 season from Johan Camargo and with Riley among baseball’s prospects in the minors, Anthopoulos knew that, from both a cost and value standpoint, Donaldson presented the best chance for the Braves lineup to be significantly improved. In the end, he could not have been more right.
A year later, the Braves find themselves in a similar situation. The difference this time is that the Braves do not have as clear of an internal answer to man third as they did last year. Furthermore, the need for a big bat to anchor the offense is higher than ever. Though Anthopoulos has hinted at being content with Camargo and Riley as options, both he and the Braves know how critical Donaldson was to their success last year. They also know that some of the best middle of the order options available this winter man the hot corner. The Braves have put a clear priority on finding a source they feel can provide them with similar production that Donaldson did last year.
As a result, the big question to ask becomes simple: How will the Braves fill their needs at third base and in the middle of the order, and can both be answered with the same player?
The easy answer and preference is to simply lock down Donaldson himself for the foreseeable future, yet with each passing day, that becomes less of a certainty. If Donaldson goes elsewhere, there are a few true difference makers that could be the answer to both needs on the trade market that make sense to pursue, and the Braves would be a favorite to land their services due to their plethora of young talent. However, Anthopoulos may be reluctant to pay the cost for those players, and as a result, may trust his ability to be creative instead of paying a premium cost.
Regardless of the direction the Braves go, answering the aforementioned question certainly is a priority for the remainder of the offseason. However, the way in which the Braves will answer that question will result in a few other questions. One in particular carries significance in both the present and the future:
What becomes of Austin Riley in Atlanta?
The answer to this second question will likely have a strong correlation with how the Braves answer the first one. In other words, the more certainty the Braves get in filling their needs at third and in the middle of the order, the more uncertain Riley’s future as a Brave becomes. Obviously, Riley has the potential to be the player that answers both of these questions for the Braves in the present and the future. However, the reality is that Atlanta has rightfully put a higher preference on production than potential.
As mentioned above, Atlanta has different avenues it can take to fulfill its needs. Each of these options will also have different impacts on Riley. As a result, here are a few ideas on how the Braves can best utilize Riley based the which avenue they take:
LONG TERM ANSWER
As multiple reports have suggested, both the Braves and Donaldson seem to prefer a reunion, this time for multiple years. However, if Donaldson takes off for greener pastures (who can blame him?), the Braves have cast a wide net that includes other long term solutions, such as Nolan Arenado. Regardless of the name involved, if the Braves fill their need at third and in middle of the order with the same player who can be controlled for years to come, Riley’s future as a Brave becomes less certain. However, that does not mean it is completely blocked.
Riley proved last year that he is more than capable to handle left field. He also proved that his bat could he an absolute weapon, especially by deepening the lineup as a whole form the sixth or seventh spot. Even with Atlanta’s best two position prospects being outfielders, it is fair to say that Riley has a higher offensive ceiling than either Christian Pache or Drew Waters. The Braves could do far worse than a corner outfield duo of Riley and Ronald Acuna Jr.; in fact, few teams currently have more potential in a pair of corner outfielders.
However, if third base no longer is an option, Atlanta could run into a bit of a dilemma allowing the outfield picture work itself out. As mentioned above, Atlanta should be putting more of a preference on production than potential going forward. Furthermore, Riley, Waters, and Pache all remain highly valuable as potential trade pieces to bring in a difference maker. If the Braves keep all three, potential flaws could emerge that lowers that value. In the end, there will obviously be an odd man out.
WIth Waters and Pache being natural outfielders and further from the Majors, Riley may have more value in a trade due to his bat and a third baseman being a bigger need for another team. Furthermore, though he may have a higher offensive ceiling, Riley’s profile may also give him a higher chance of being a bust than Waters or Pache as an outfielder. As a result, if the Braves do find a long-term answer at third, Riley’s best long term value will likely be as a trade chip. If they sign Donaldson, they could use Riley in an effort to acquire a difference maker in the starting rotation or outfield. If they trade for someone such as Arenado, Riley could be a headliner in the trade package for that player.
SHORT TERM ANSWER
If a long term answer does not emerge, the alternative could be a difference making bat in the short term. Options could be found on the trade market, such as Kris Bryant or Kyle Seager. Others could be found as rebound candidates on the free agent market, such as Travis Shaw. The key takeaway from this option is that if the Braves want to only commit to someone over the next year or to, that is an indication they believe Riley will be ready to takeover third base in the near future.
If a short-term option is found at 3B, that does not mean Riley will spend his time in the minors. The Braves could still feature Riley plenty. For instance, in the case of trading for Bryant, both he and Riley can play in the outfield and at third base. If the Braves were to then acquire a lesser talent who can hit righties well, they basically will have a rotation between the two positions, with Bryant playing every day and the added bat and Riley platooning. The end result is a lineup that is upgraded by the new addition of Bryant, a productive bench bat, and a consistently improving Riley.
While Riley could be traded in this scenerio as well, it seems the Braves would be less inclined since they will need an eventual long term option at third. Furthermore, if the rumors prove to be true that the DH is coming to the NL, Riley would likely be an asset in that role for the Braves. Overall, in this scenerio, it seems the Braves would have more value keeping Riley in the fold as a platoon partner and lefty masher in the present, while also continuing to help him develop as a lineup staple into the future.
BIG BAT FOUND AT OTHER POSITION
If the top options at third base simply do not materialize, the Braves will have to widen their net to find their big bat. Options in free agency, such as Marcell Ozuna, could help anchor the middle of the order. Other options could be found on the trade market as well. This is the scenerio that may have the biggest chance of Anthopoulos making the big trade many expect he could make at any time.
Obviously, this option contains the most uncertainty about third base. However, it also creates the best opportunity for regular playing time in the majors for Riley. As mentioned above, finding a left-handed hitting bench bat that can hit right-handers could become a very productive platoon with Riley for the Braves. Furthermore, if Riley does experience a breakout, the level of talent of the added bat will not stand in his way of regular playing time.
Of course, if the Braves cannot find a long-term answer at third base, they could use Riley in a deal to get a star level player for the outfield or rotation. Overall, this option is likely the least ideal for the Braves, but would provide the most opportunity for Riley to shine. If Atlanta feels comfortable with the moves they have already made, and can stabilize the lineup with a middle of the order bat who plays another position, Atlanta may feel it has created some leeway to allow Riley a chance to be the everyday third baseman. However, this scenerio also carries with it the biggest risk that the offseason did not work out as planned. With Atlanta’s amount of spending so far this offseason, it is unlikely that they do not find their third base and middle of the order source in some fashion.
Much like Dansby Swanson, the ability to trade Austin Riley should only be utilized in a trade if it is a move the Braves feel really puts them over the top as a World Series Contender. The fact that Riley could be exactly what Atlanta is looking for makes it logical for the Braves to give him opportunities to make that a reality. The Braves should not be motivated to trade Austin Riley just to make a move. They should be motivated to find the avenue that will maximize Riley’s for the Atlanta and himself. That determination greatly depends on the other moves the Braves make this offseason. However, no matter what happens, how the Braves decide to utilize Riley, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere, should be based solely on maximizing his future value in a way that gives Atlanta the best chance to win.