The Braves’ have a precarious situation on their hands in regards to one of their top prospects – Austin Riley. The slugging third baseman got off to a slow start in Gwinnett but has been mashing baseballs the last two weeks. Here’s a look at his numbers the last 14 games compared to his first 15, courtesy of MLB.com’s Mark Bowman.
First 15 games: .200/.273/.333 2 HR, 15 K, 6 BB
Past 14 games: .415/.475/.1000, 8 HR, 11 K, 6 BB
13 (5 doubles, 8 HR) of his 19 extra-base hits have been tallied within his past 38 at-bats for Gwinnett.
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) May 6, 2019
Riley hit five home runs this past week, including one that traveled 492-feet. The raw power this kid possesses is out of this world, and he translates to be a 30+ home run guy at the major league level. It’s becoming more and more apparent by the day, Riley is ready to take that next step to Atlanta. The question remains, though, “when is the right time to call him up?”
The Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal in the offseason to serve as the ideal stop-gap. The former AL MVP isn’t going anywhere; which means Riley will not man his natural third base position in Atlanta this season unless Josh Donaldson suffers an injury. That’s part of what makes deciding when to bring up Riley so tricky.
If the Braves opt to call him up now, they don’t have a place to put him. Riley fiddled with some outfield work during spring training and did not look uncomfortable, but Atlanta currently has all three outfield spots covered and have three guys on the bench that can play the outfield as well. There is no reason for the organization to bring him up if he’s primarily going to ride the pine.
Eventually, Riley will get the call this season, but it is going to take the right scenario for that to happen.
Josh Donaldson/Johan Camargo Injury
I’ve already said the only way Riley plays third base is if Josh Donaldson gets injured, so I’m getting it out of the way first. There’s no denying it; Donaldson is as injury prone as they come at this stage in his career. If he sees any stints on the DL, Riley will be the obvious choice to take his spot in the lineup.
The Braves’ top prospect will probably be the top option if Johan Camargo went down as well. Riley isn’t anywhere near the utility man Camargo is, but he could still give guys like Donaldson, Markakis, and Inciarte days off by playing third base and the outfield.
An Ender Inciarte Trade
The Braves trading Ender Inciarte is a foregone conclusion. It’s just a matter of when. The most likely time for it to happen is next offseason when the organization feels prospects like Pache and Waters are closer to the majors. However, if Riley keeps raking and Inciarte can be swapped for a competent relief option, I don’t see how the Braves don’t at least consider it.
Inciarte’s defense is other-worldly, but his bat doesn’t cut it. Replacing Ender in the lineup with a power-hitter like Riley (if he’s ready), makes this Braves’ lineup that much more unstoppable.
An Old-Fashion Cup of Coffee
As Riley’s torrid streak of hitting continues, the Braves might feel there’s no better time to get their top prospect’s feet wet in the majors than right now. Most likely, this call-up would not be permanent but will give Riley some chances to play at the top-level while he is in a groove. If he’s not making an immediate impact and playing often, he will be sent back down.
A Late Season Call-Up
This is the last thing Braves’ fans want to hear. They are ready to see this kid work his magic and drop tankers at SunTrust Park, but that is why they are fans, and the people in the front office are paid to make the decisions.
Riley only played 75 games in AAA last year because of lingering injury issues. Many believed he would need a whole minor league season before the Braves decided to call him up. Riley’s hot right now, but those numbers are not sustainable. He’s going to come back down to earth eventually, and as aforementioned, the Braves do not have any room for him to play. The best way for him to develop is by starting every day in AAA – not warming the bench in Atlanta. The Braves will call Riley up but it might not be until August or Septemeber when they believe he can help them make a run at the division title and win a playoff series.