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Austin Riley the Latest Braves Prospect To Make Instant Impact


Braves rookie Austin Riley is the most recent of the Uber-Prospects to make their way to Atlanta this season and he's already off to a fast start.

Riley joins Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson to form a young core of players to fill out the Braves lineup, along with franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman. Pairing this lineup with a young pitching rotation featuring Mike Soroka, Max Fried and 2018 all-star Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves present and future have fans optimistic of a run similar to their heyday through the ‘90s.

Should fantasy owners be equally optimistic? Let's take a deep dive into the latest rookie phenom to hit the big stage.

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A Rising Star

Riley entered 2019 as the 38th-ranked prospect overall and fourth in the Atlanta system according to MLB Pipeline. After being drafted 41st overall in 2015 out of high school, the Mississippi native has seen his star rise each year as he has answered questions about his skill set along the way. Riley was drafted as a third baseman by the Braves, though many teams saw more potential in him as a pitcher. Atlanta committed to him as a position player due to his prodigious raw power, graded a 70 by Baseball America on the 20-80 scale, and arm strength at third base. The power was shown immediately as Riley hit 20 home runs in each of his first two years of full-season minor league baseball and followed that up with 19 last season in an injury-shortened season at Triple-A.

Riley has always shown a lot of swing-and-miss in his profile, striking out in just over 25% of his plate appearances across four-plus seasons in the minor leagues. This fits the profile of the modern-day power hitter that pairs high strikeout rates with big home run totals. A flaw in Riley’s offensive ability has been his lack of elite-level bat speed that has limited his capability to handle high-velocity fastballs. The Braves have worked with their farmhand to alter his hand position and change how he loads his swing in order to start his bat a little quicker and allow him to get to high-speed pitches.

As his career continues, it will be of particular interest to see how Riley adjusts to Major League pitching, especially first-class fastballs as he will face off with pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom early and often as he makes his way through the NL East. As Riley just turned 22 on April 2 of this year, he’s been younger than his competition at every level and has shown the ability to adjust at each stop. I would not bet against his chances of doing the same now that he has reached the big leagues.

 

Getting The Call

Riley’s promotion has had Braves fans and fantasy owners chomping at the bit since the beginning of the season and the calls only got louder as Riley clubbed 13 home runs in 18 games leading up to his big league debut. Riley has slotted right in the middle of the Braves productive lineup, hitting either fifth or sixth in each of his five starts.

The power we saw in the minor leagues has continued in Atlanta. In five starts, 19 plate appearances, Riley has three extra-base hits, two home runs and one double. In the small sample, Riley’s average exit velocity has been 93.3 mph which would rank him in the top-10 among all big leaguers if he had enough batted balls to qualify. To expound on this, Riley has put 13 balls into play and has barreled three of those, according to Statcast. When you consider the praise for raw power that has followed him since he was drafted in 2015, you can expect Riley to continue to barrel the baseball and post big power numbers the rest of the year.

 

2019 Outlook

Riley’s outlook for the remainder of 2019 is currently a bit unclear, as his call-up came due to an injury to everyday center fielder Ender Inciarte. Inciarte is not expected to miss extended time which will lead the Braves to have to make a decision upon his return. Riley can force their hand by continuing to produce at the plate while given the opportunity.

It is clear the Braves are a better offensive team with Riley in the lineup as they have scored 32 runs in the five games since his emergence in Atlanta. The natural third baseman played only four games in left field in Triple-A before being called up and playing there in four of his first five games with the Braves. This diversity should allow Riley to stay in the lineup every day as long as his bat justifies doing so.

For the remainder of the season, you can expect some regression from his current hot streak, but Riley will continue to be a productive fantasy player as long as the playing time is there. A 20-home run season is not out of the question and RBI opportunities will be aplenty for anyone hitting in the middle of the Atlanta order. If he’s still available in your league, he should be added no matter the format. For those lucky enough to have grabbed him, he should be held, as the return at this point would likely not give you equal value this early in his debut season.

 

Dynasty Value

A long-term outlook for Riley will be as a player that posts a batting average in the .250s with 25-30 HR power and a ceiling of even more. On a recent television broadcast, Atlanta legend Chipper Jones laid a Troy Glaus comparison on the young prospect and that seems to be a fair projection. Defensively, third base seems to be the future home for Riley as Josh Donaldson is only on a one-year contract with the club. Dynasty league owners can pencil Riley in as their third baseman for the next handful of years as well, with outfield eligibility an added bonus.

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