If you’ve been following the Atlanta Braves rebuild long enough then you have seen a bevy of young star talent graduate from the minor leagues in the past couple of seasons. Yet, there are still more insanely gifted bats rising through the Braves’ system and there has been none more publicized than Austin Riley, a third base prospect with a next level bat.
Initially taken with the 41st pick of the 2015 MLB Draft, Riley has seen every single level of the Braves minor league system. At the ripe age of 22 he is about to go through his second season at Triple-A in Gwinnett. He has destroyed every league he’s ever been in by putting his big 6’3” frame to use, mashing the ball to all fields on his way to hitting 20 homers each year in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
So, you might be wondering, why is this kid not in the Majors doing damage like his fellow mates Acuna and Albies? Well the answer is quite simple, and it’s that he can’t currently play any position other than third base, which is currently occupied in Atlanta by former MVP Josh Donaldson. Not to say Donaldson is in the way, by any means, because he definitely is a bat you need to have in your lineup for contention, but it’s just the way things are.
Fret not though, there IS a very simple way to get Austin Riley up to the big leagues and mashing in no time while keeping Josh at the hot corner.
You may have noticed recently, that there is a fairly large offensive void in the Braves lineup. For lack of a better way to say it, let’s just come right out with it: Ender Inciarte is the worst offensive player on the team, and while the defense has been able to keep him afloat up to this point, we’ve gotten to a point where the offense is so bad that he’s borderline un-playable. It is also important to note that Ender turns 29 years old at the end of this season with two years and $15 million dollars remaining on his contract with a team option in 2022 for $9 million more (or a one million dollar buyout).
Don’t get me wrong, Inciarte has been an absolute beast on the defensive side of the ball since coming to Atlanta, but this is his actual heat map of where he hit the ball last season the most:
No, that’s not very good.
In addition, he’s got the lowest average exit velocity of qualified players since entering the league in 2015.
Now you’re probably wondering what Ender Inciarte has to do with Austin Riley, but we’re getting there I promise.
With Ender being such an offensive negative on a team in contention within the toughest division in all of baseball, the Braves are going to need to make a change. Luckily, it’s not too late.
Inciarte still has value coming off of three consecutive seasons of essentially 3 fWAR baseball (3.1, 2.9, 2.9), and his contract isn’t so long that a team would be scared of going anywhere near it. So the best possible scenario for the Braves is to offload his deal while they still can, and possibly profit by picking up some bullpen help or another prospect to help re-stock the pipeline.
Here is where Riley comes in. No, he can’t play center field. However, Ronald Acuna Jr. very much can which leaves left field (a much easier position) open for the young Mr. Riley to fill. I know earlier in this post I said that Austin Riley couldn’t really play any position outside of third, but he *might* just be able to stick in left for a season while Donaldson continues to get at-bats in the same lineup.
It’s an interesting scenario because it essentially questions how big of a risk the Braves are willing to take to score runs. Riley isn’t too much of a risk, but trading outfield defense with a young pitching staff in place definitely is. Would Atlanta do this? I’d bet against it. But if they’re serious about winning in the NL East this season, they need to find a way to get Austin Riley regular at-bats on a Major League field one way or another. It’s time.