The departure of Josh Donaldson to the Minnesota Twins this offseason has left a hole in both the Atlanta Braves lineup and at the hot corner. Instead of making a big splash in free agency or trade market, the Braves seemed content rolling with in-house options to fill the void.
Enter spring training 2020 and both realistic candidates — Austin Riley and Johan Camargo — were off to solid starts, making this decision quite the conundrum. With the rest of spring on hold, it gives us plenty of time to contemplate who we want as a regular, everyday third baseman.
The Atlanta Braves Case for Third Base
The case for Johan Camargo: Ah Camargo, the Braves prospect that could. Camargo really came out of nowhere as a utility-esque player in 82 games of 2018 before erupting as a fan favorite in 2018. That season he hit .272 with 19 home runs and a sound .806 OPS. Most importantly, he played the majority of his 134 games at third (114 to be precise). He made 10 errors in 244 total chances — pretty much exactly on the league average — and a range factor of 2.25, just slightly below the league average that year.
Camargo’s much-anticipated follow-up campaign was marred by inconsistency and contact issues. The power faded, his walk rate fell and he simply struggled hitting the ball. After a stint in Gwinnett, Camargo returned in September, looking like the Camargo of old, going 5-for-11 primarily in pinch hit roles. His full game played on September 10 saw him go 2-for-3 with a double and a home run.
The 26-year-old switch hitter was hitting .286 with a .789 OPS through 11 Grapefruit League games. The strikeouts were still way above the walks (7-to-1 in just 30 late appearances) but looked back on track. He played 10 of those games at third not committing an error in 18 total chances with 15 assists.
The value in Camargo is his versatility, which makes him an ideal fit for that 26th roster spot, opposed to an everyday third baseman. That said, defensively at the hot corner, he is more of a, for lack of a better word, proven commodity at third base. You know what you’ll get from Camargo and that’s, for the most part, reliability which is nice.
The case for Austin Riley: Riley is the former first-rounder that became yours truly’s favorite prospect after an explosive second half to 2016. It was then he turned around a season where he looked completely lost at the plate into arguably the most feared power hitter in the entire South Atlantic League (Ronald Acuña was hurt for much of that season mind you).
That was the case for Riley as he climbed the ladder. He often started slow and made the adjustments you wanted to see, and quickly he became a favorite prospect of many. The power alone was enough to get excited, but there were concerns about his strikeout rate and where he fit in for the Braves future. He had the arm to play third and made nice plays, but the consistency was not there. Could he be trusted at the hot corner?
It was quite the opposite for Riley in 2019. For one, he was playing in the outfield. Secondly, he came out of the gates on fire and by the time of his mid-May call-up had 14 home runs. And then by the end of May, whoa boy, he was hitting .356 with seven home runs, big, timely home runs at that. Atlanta loved him.
As the season went on, however, people realized he was much more Pedro Cerrano than Hank Aaron. You give Riley some off-speed stuff and we see the strikeout and contact issues arise. He finished the season in Gwinnett raking once again.
Riley looked great in spring training 2020. Through 12 games he was hitting .357 with a 1.080 OPS including two doubles and two home runs. Most impressively, both home runs came off breaking balls and his strikeout-to-walk rate was a pleasant 5:4. He played 12 games, eight of which came at third base where he committed one error in 10 total chances with six assists.
Riley, still a mere 22 years of age, has the larger, more exciting upside. He may never be the all-around contact hitter Chipper Jones was at third base, but he certainly can produce the power. The question is do you trust him defensively as the everyday third baseman? While he is nowhere near a Gold Glove candidate, the improvements and growth he has shown at the position cannot be denied. With the added versatility of outfield and now some first base, perhaps 2020 is the time to unleash the Riley.
It goes without saying we know my answer. But this isn’t about me. So, Braves Country, which one is it?