Braves: For the time being, it’s time to cut Austin Riley some slack

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At the moment, Austin Riley is probably the most criticized player in the Braves starting lineup, and rightfully so. For the most part, he just hasn’t looked the same since he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2019, and third base has been Atlanta’s most glaring question mark ever since Josh Donaldson departed for Minnesota. That’s had some believing it is already time to start thinking about replacing him, even if that means turning to Ehire Adrianza.

Well, maybe it’s time for those folks to hold their horses a bit. We are only a few weeks into the season, and not a single soul can say that Adrianza is a long-term answer for the Braves at third base. It’s much easier to argue that Adrianza is not even an upgrade over Riley at all, even with the way Riley has performed over the last few seasons. But let’s not even focus on that because if it gets to the point where the Braves have to turn to Adrianza as their everyday third baseman, they are already in trouble. Thankfully, we are still a little ways away from that point.

Don’t look now, but Riley has quietly been among the Braves’ most productive starters this season. He is fourth among Braves position players in bWAR, behind only Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, and Guillermo Heredia (of course). Riley’s defense has been much better so far this season, and his offense might finally be starting to turn around.

Wednesday against the Yankees, Riley got on base in all four of his plate appearances, walking twice and hitting his first home run of the season. Last night against the Diamondbacks, his two-run home run in the second inning was his second in two at-bats. As a result, he now has the second-highest batting average and second-highest on-base percentage among starters on the team. However, that’s not to say too much, given just how abysmal the Braves regulars outside of Acuna and Freeman have been in 2021, but what I’m more impressed with is the way he’s begun to cut down his strikeouts.

In the five games before last night’s win over Arizona, Riley hadn’t struck out once, leading to an OBP of .667 over that span and OPS of 1.467. Compare that to his previous 12 games, where he struck out in 13 of his 39 at-bats and posted a miserable .418 OPS.

I’m not saying it is time to jump for joy and proclaim Riley the starting third baseman for the rest of the season, but it was equally as rash to begin saying he belonged in AAA after just ten games of the season, especially when you consider just how abysmal the rest of the lineup has performed. Riley is still 24-years-old with less than a season’s worth of games under his belt. Not every player is going to experience success in their early 20s like Acuna and Albies. At the very least, Riley deserves a couple of months to work out the kinks, and who knows, he could be a hot streak away from becoming a cornerstone piece to this franchise.

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