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Starting Nine: In Riley, Braves finding success where they’ve rarely found it

First-round position players have often bit the franchise since striking gold with Chipper Jones, and Riley’s breakout providing hope for another hit

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves
The reigning National League Player of the Week, Austin Riley, who hit his 10th home run Wednesday vs. the Red Sox, is seventh in the majors in OBP (.407) and 12th in average (.313) and wRC+ (159).
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Harken back to those dark days when saying the Braves were walking “parallel paths” was really code for everyone to get comfortable with those 90-loss seasons. One of the few things a franchise and fanbase had was the future. Between Freddie Freeman home runs, Nick Markakis doubles and the sporadic Julio Teheran gem, the running theme was searching for the talent that would define the next era.

The efforts and development of position players from those years have led to cornerstones via international signings — with some organizational-shaking troubles along the way — and the trade route proved fruitful. But where the Braves had yet to find a real breakthrough was in an area in which they’ve rare found success for the better part of three decades: top draft picks spent on non-pitchers.

Austin Riley has entered the chat.

The 24-year-old third baseman is in the midst of a breakout, the reigning National League Player of the Week belting his 10th home run Wednesday in Boston. He ranks seventh in the majors in on-base percentage (.407) and 12th in average (.313) and wRC+ (159), with a .957 OPS that is second to only the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (.997) — you know, the player some had been angling for to supplant Riley — among NL third basemen.

It’s been a sizable eruption for Riley — the Mississippi native, who Atlanta took in the first round of the 2015 draft (41st overall) as a compensatory pick for the 2014 Craig Kimbrel trade to the Padres — whose two previous seasons saw him hit 12 percent below league average and have included wild highs (16 first-half home runs in 2019) and lows (two HRs after the break in ‘19 and a .074 average against offspeed pitches last season).

The next step is in making this elite production stick, but it’s an unquestioned step in the right direction for the Braves, who entered this season 27th in third base fWAR (13.5) since Chipper Jones retired in 2012, and Atlanta’s position player draft history since that Hall of Famer was taken first overall in 1990.

Post-Jones, Atlanta has spent 18 first-round picks on non-pitchers, with seven so far reaching the majors. The likes of Mike Kelly — the second overall pick in 1991 resulting in minus-0.2 fWAR in two seasons in Atlanta — and Scott Thorman (minus-1.1 fWAR after going 30th in 2000) flamed out and Braxton Davidson (the No. 32 pick in 2014) was released last May and spent 2020 in the Constellation Energy League.

Shea Langeliers and Braden Shewmake, both taken in 2019, are on track to reach the big leagues, but the Braves have a sordid history in hitting on first-round position players, further magnifying the season Riley is in the midst of, and those few hits that have come from those early picks on non-pitchers.

With Riley’s tear, counting down Atlanta’s top first-round position players in the post-Chipper era, and where the current third baseman sits.

1. Jason Heyward, OF

Pick: 14th, 2007
Career fWAR: 33.0

Among every position player the Braves have taken since moving to Atlanta in 1966, only Chipper Jones (84.6) and Dale Murphy (44.3) have a higher career fWAR than Heyward. He hasn’t more than a 2.1 fWAR player since leaving St. Louis after 2015, and Heyward’s Braves run continues to be his most productive. He averaged a 3.9 fWAR in five seasons before being dealt to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Jordan Walden, ushering in the changes to come following 2014. His rookie season (.277/.393/.456 with 18 home runs and a runner-up to Buster Posey in the Rookie of the Year balloting) was met with inconsistencies, and constant criticism of a swing with too many moving parts, but Heyward did claim a pair of Gold Gloves and among all Braves outfielders, his 6.0 dWAR trails only Andruw Jones (26.6).

2. Kelly Johnson, SS

Pick: 38th, 2000
Career fWAR: 18.7

He would end up becoming an answer to a trivia question as the first player to suit up for every American League East team, and his best season came when he slashed .284/.370/.496 with a 5.3 fWAR in Arizona in 2010, but Johnson was a key member of the Baby Braves, that collection of 18 rookies who helped extend the run of division titles in 2005. A NL Player of the Week in that rookie year, he had a 3.4 fWAR in his first full season of 2007 and 2.6 fWAR in 2008 before those heights with the Diamondbacks when he left as a free agent after 2009. Those second and third stints in Atlanta came with his being traded between the Braves and Mets both times (first in 2015 with Juan Uribe for John Gant and Rob Whalen and then again a summer later for Akeel Morris), but only Chipper and Bob Horner (19.5 fWAR) had more productive major league careers when stacked against any infielders the Braves have drafted since moving to Georgia.

3. Jeff Francoeur, OF

Pick: 23rd, 2002
Career fWAR: 5.8

It seemed impossibly too good to be true. Drafted by his hometown team, Francoeur took Atlanta and MLB by storm. A few months into his first full season, he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, deemed “The Natural.” In reality, it was too good to be true, as two 3.0-fWAR seasons were met with a negative-1.3 in 2008 before he was dealt to the Mets a year later. While Francoeur would remain a viable veteran for 12 seasons, and one of the game’s most likable players in ultimately becoming a broadcaster, his play never met the hype and the potential of those early days in Atlanta. In many ways, Francoeur has become a cautionary tale for the expectations heaped on young players, with one scout telling ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2009 that the outfielder was “the most confused hitter in the game.” As an aside, Francoeur told me that when that SI cover came out, Tim Hudson made him take batting practice with a bat that, a la The Natural’s Roy Hobbs, had Wonderboy written on it.

4. Austin Riley, 3B

Pick: 41st, 2015
Career fWAR: 1.6

After Heyward, the Braves had seen Matt Lipka (35th pick in 2010) and Davidson fail to matriculate to the majors before Riley debuted May 15, 2019. His 16 home runs before the All-Star break that season tied the Atlanta rookie record set by Ryan Klesko in 1994, and while he’s been chasing that first half ISO (.305) ever since, Riley is molding power (.238 ISO and those 10 HRs) and plate discipline with career highs in 11.1 percent walk rate and .407 OBP. Spending nearly all of his time at third base last season, Riley had his struggles with minus-10 defensive runs saved, and while he’s still a negative player in that department in 2021 (currently at minus-1 DRS), he’s tied for the fifth most out of zone plays (20) among third basemen. It’s now a matter of how high he climbs on this list, with a pair of intriguing recent picks on his heels.

5. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C

Pick: 36th, 2003
Career fWAR: 5.0

Taken one spot ahead of five-time All-Star Adam Jones in the 2003 draft, Saltalamacchia’s future — or lack thereof — in Atlanta was clear with Brian McCann solidified at catcher and was only called up in 2007 after McCann suffered finger injury. Saltalamacchia spent just 47 games with the Braves before he was traded to the Rangers along with Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison for Mark Teixeira. His heights came in Boston, where he had three straight seasons of at least 2.7 fWAR and hit 25 home runs in 2012 and won a championship in 2013. Along with holding the distinction of the longest surname in MLB history (that’s 14 letters for those against doing the counting themselves), the man also owned a pretty ridiculous home in Florida behind those $16.4 million career earnings. That puts Saltalamacchia fourth on this list in that department behind Heyward ($157.4 million), Francoeur ($27.5 million) and Johnson ($27.4 million).

6. Shea Langeliers, C

Pick: 9th, 2019
Career fWAR: N/A

Langeliers represented a departure, not just from the Braves having spent their last four top-10 picks on pitchers, but he was the first catcher they’d selected within the top 10 since Tyler Houston went No. 2 overall in 1989. Things didn’t exactly work out with Houston, who 33 games into his time with the Braves was moved to the Cubs in 1996 for pitcher Ismael Villegas. It’s not hard to imagine Langeliers — who just cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 list — sharing the catching duties as early as next season with William Contreras, with the Baylor product Langeliers currently hitting 30 percent above league average for Double-A Mississippi. Also, in case you haven’t heard, the pop time is off the charts.

7. Braden Shewmake, SS

Pick: 21st, 2019
Career fWAR: N/A

How exactly does Langeliers’ 2019 classmate fit into the Braves’ future? He’s spent all 78 games of his pro career so far at shortstop (where Atlanta has Dansby Swanson) and while he played second base some at Texas A&M, the Braves have Ozzie Albies under contract for upwards of seven seasons to come. He also has experience at third base, but Riley is showing signs of holding that down. While he’s two years removed from being drafted, Shewmake is just a year younger than both Albies and Riley at 24. Regardless of where he lands, Shewmake is currently having issues following up his .796 OPS at Rome and Mississippi from 2019, sporting a .093 average and is hitting 94 percent below league average at Double-A. While the bat continues to develop, there’s little doubt that the glove is for real.

8. Mike Kelly, OF

Pick: 2nd, 1991
Career fWAR: 0.7

A year after striking gold with Chipper, the Braves produced one of the worst No. 2 overall picks in draft history. Among the 48 of 56 players taken with that spot that reached the majors, only nine have a lower career fWAR than Kelly, whose time with Atlanta included a .220/.273/.383 line with five home runs in 214 at-bats. It’s easy to look back on a draft class with hindsight as your guide but going after Kelly in that first round in 1991 in terms of position players were Dmitri Young (fourth with a 12.5 career fWAR), Doug Glanville (12th with a 10.0 fWAR), Manny Ramirez (13th with a 66.3 fWAR), Cliff Floyd (14th with a 24.7 fWAR) and Shawn Green (16th with a 29.9 fWAR). Said Braves director of player development and scouting Chuck LaMar when they selected Kelly “He’s a combination of speed and power that we want to build our major-league club around.” That would-be centerpiece was dealt to the Reds in 1996 in exchange for Chad Fox and a player to be named later (Ray King).

9. Scott Thorman, 3B

Pick: 30th, 2000
Career fWAR: minus-1.1

In 2007, Thorman’s bat was drawing raves in spring training, with Bobby Cox saying of the 6-foot-3, 225 pounder “He’s got a vicious swing. He might just have the hardest swing in baseball. You can actually hear his swing when you’re standing there.” Even Chipper bought in, adding “I think with 500 or 600 at-bats, he’s going to hit 25 (home runs).” The Hall of Fame third baseman wasn’t that far off, with Thorman hitting 16 in 415 at-bats over two seasons, but hitting .222 over those 175 games, the Braves had seen enough. They parted ways in 2008 and while Thorman bounced around within the Brewers, Rangers, Royals and Tigers’ systems, he never made it back to the majors. The only position player to reach the bigs that had a lower career fWAR than Thorman was second baseman Pat Rockett (10th in 1973, who had a minus-5.0 fWAR). As bad as the Thorman pick was, the Braves did salvage that 2000 draft when they took the No. 2 player on this list, Kelly Johnson, nine picks later.

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