Guest article by Colby Wilson (@CWilson225 on the Twitters)
It’s time to talk irrationally about Austin Riley.
If you’re Josh Brown, fearless leader of Knockahoma Nation, this is a drum you’ve been beating for a while. If you think Josh is insufferable on Twitter now, imagine knowing him since the heady days of the 2016 Rome Braves, when guys like Ronald Acuna Jr., Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Touki Touissaint, A.J. Minter, Max Fried and I mean my God, how did any random assortment of 19-22 year olds ever beat that team? Anyway, that Rome team marched to a South Atlantic League title and Minor League Team of the Year honors and Josh was right there banging the drum a little louder each day and as much as I hate to say it, he was right about practically everything. Ken, please don’t show him this paragraph.
Anyway, the player that evoked the most of Josh’s particular brand of Twitter evangelizing was a kid from Memphis, a 2015 first-round supplemental selection who could flat rake. I speak of Austin Riley, as Josh did all throughout the summer of 2016 (at great length, through prose and poem and iambic pentameter and any other way it’s possible to create and consume words, whether you wanted him to or not). He hit 20 homers and drove in 80 runs (Riley, not Josh) and generally looked like a man among boys which is an odd thing to say about a 19-year old. But Josh had consumed the Kool-Aid and trusting his opinion… oh God, that’s the literal worst thing to do in almost every scenario. Please don’t run away with the idea you should ask him about your taxes or Prime Plus 5 or Syria.
But second-hand observing a low-A player (albeit a talented one), my personal enthusiasm was cautiously optimistic. Riley seemed like a quality prospect. At varying points during the most recent restructure of the organization, so have Braxton Davidson and Ray-Patrick Didder. Players plateau, get hurt, develop bad habits, get busted for running an oxy ring out of the clubhouse. These things happen ALL THE TIME. I feel certain.
Not to Riley, who maintained a steady progression through the farm system and beat the brakes off opposing hurlers at every step of the way. Maybe they weren’t the eye-popping Vladimir Guerrero Jr. numbers but there’s a workmanlike professionalism to hitting at every stop—from rookie ball to Triple-A—and posting the same “15-20 homers, .270-.300 average, OPS always hovering near .800 at a minimum” line every step of the way. Maybe that doesn’t stir the imagination the same way Vladito hitting one-handed 470-foot lasers does, but Riley’s homers were no less legitimate, his numbers no less valid.
Since coming up to the big leagues in the aftermath of the Ender Inciarte injury, Riley has immediately instituted himself as part of the everyday lineup. Maybe he’s an… adventure… in left field, which is not his natural milieu. He probably strikes out more than you’d like him to. A 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is great if you’re a pitcher, but Riley is very much not. But—and not to overreact to everything that Riley has done since he arrived—he has to play. Every day. Going back to Gwinnett would be a useless endeavor, because he was raking there too. He needs to stay. Has to stay.
And this now leaves the Braves in something of a conundrum. In left, Riley blocks Acuna from his natural position and Inciarte from a return to center. Josh Donaldson is obviously the current choice at third for the Braves and they handed out a big one-year deal to make it so. Intangibly, they know they have to make a move. Keeping all three through the remainder of the season seems like it might be a tall order. Riley is flourishing playing out of position and doing something extremely… uncoordinated… in left at least once a series. A move to his natural position could unlock Eddie Mathews 2.0 for all anyone knows.
To digress from Riley for one second, Donaldson has been tearing the cover off the ball in his own right and looking every bit the cleanup man he was signed to be. He’s holding up his end of the bargain. Ender Inciarte was fine last year, despite what revisionist history would like to tell you—I’ll take the guy flashing Gold Glove leather in center and if I’m a little disappointed in his .705 OPS, I’ll bat him eighth. World won’t end. Ronald Acuna Jr. is doing just fine at leadoff, thank you very much.
The monkey wrench here is that Inciarte was butt (slashing .218/.300/.323) before hitting the injured list. Johan Camargo wasn’t getting the at-bats he needed to be productive and little has changed on that front. The phrase “Well, they’ve just got too much talent,” is as hackey as it is wrong and I won’t dare insult you with it in this moment. Having too much talent is a lazy way of admitting you can’t figure out how to properly disperse assets in order to fill holes in your roster (like, say, a crappy bullpen). It’s a copout.
But upon Inciarte’s return, one of three things will happen: Riley will get sent down, a trade will occur or there will be this uneasy lineup juggling that satisfies no one and probably backfires more than it succeeds. Sending Riley down is a hopelessly stupid option. Of the remaining two, one makes sense and would satisfy both the lineup issues and (hopefully!) help mend a broken bullpen. The other is a terrifying reality I don’t really want to contemplate.
But to bring this back to Riley, of the three options, the only unpalatable one is to return him to the minor leagues. He’s here to stay. He’s too good not to remain in Atlanta. He has a je ne sais quoi that does not come around very often. He’s special, and that’s not going to become more special because he spends an extra month hoofing it around the International League.
(If he becomes Jeff Francoeur II—The Revenge, just delete this last paragraph.)
Colby Wilson is a guest writer for Knockahoma Nation. He has previously written for Tomahawk Take and Baseball Prospectus, and is a self defined “curmudgeon”. If you enjoyed this article (or hated it) argue with him on the twitters @CWilson225. A special thanks to Colby from Knockahoma Nation for bringing some reason and common sense to us unreasonable knuckleheads.