The Atlanta Braves are not getting good production from Austin Riley. Is it time to shake things up?
We already knew Austin Riley was a liability on defense, making a nice play here and there, but -8 DRS below average in 518.2 innings is terrible. It would be okay if he were subpar defensively if he was doing great things with the bat, but his offense hasn’t been there either. After Riley’s last game against the Marlins, his slash line for the year is .190/.261/.190, which is an abysmal .451 OPS. Granted, it is a small sample size, but it is still uninspiring.
Everyone on the Braves besides Pablo Sandoval and Acuña seems to be struggling, so why single out third base? Well, Austin Riley’s career offensive numbers are not much better, boasting a .230/.288/.427 slash line, which is good for a 17% below league average 83 wRC+. Sure, he has some serious pop with an ISO of .245 in 2020, but that is about all he has offered to this point. Outside of the first two weeks of his major league career, Riley has negative value both offensively and defensively.
What options do the Atlanta Braves have?
There is always a possibility of a trade or free-agent signing, but there are not many third basemen available on the free-agent market, and substantial trades are not likely this early in the season.
Braves Twitter has gone crazy over The Panda, and for a good reason. He is only the second player ever to have three pinch-hit home runs in the first 12 games of a season, proving the doubters wrong, myself included. If things continue this way, he could end up being the steal of the offseason.
Sandoval’s offensive ability is apparent, but should he really be trusted to start at the hot corner? He has been in the league since 2008 and only has three seasons where he brought positive defensive value. This late in his career, it will only get worse. Unless his bat can stay this hot, which is unlikely, he’s probably not the answer at third base either.
Adrianza is the wild card here. He has been in the league since 2013 but has never been a full-time starter, having never played more than 114 games. He is a utility guy with a career slash line of .244/.310/.362 and a wRC+ of 82 — similar to Riley’s. Adrianza has played better of late with the bat, though, if you look at what he did in Spring Training — hitting .400/.500/.700 in 40 at-bats.
Making decisions based on small sample sizes can be dangerous, but Adrianza is playing better than Riley at the moment. The biggest difference is the defensive floor. Riley’s defensive floor is -10 DRS in 383.1 innings, while Adrianza’s floor is -2 in 223.1 innings.
What the Braves will do and what they should do are very different things.
Sandoval obviously thrives as a pinch hitter, but his defense is lousy, and it’s unlikely he produces at this rate over a larger sample size. Why change what he is doing; keep him where he’s at. Adrianza is really the only other option to start, which isn’t exactly inspiring. However, he does have the hot bat at the moment and is better defensively. It might be worth giving him a longer look and perhaps option Riley to work out the kinks.
Let’s be clear, Adrianza is not the long-term answer at third base. However, the aforementioned scenario would benefit the Braves the best in the short term. If the Braves choose this route, they could also bring up Orlando Arcia as a utility guy in Riley’s place.
Hopefully, Riley can turn things around. It may be too early to totally give up on him this season, but if he doesn’t have it figured out when the minor league season begins in May, the Braves will certainly have to think about sending him back to AAA until he shows signs of sustained success at the plate. The unfortunate situation for him is that every game counts in this division, and the Braves have some ground to make up after a slow start. This is not a season that Atlanta can wait on development.
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