If you trust Braves’ third base coach Ron Washington, Austin Riley has a long and bright future ahead of him with the Atlanta Braves, per The Athletic’s David O’Brien. Said Washington, “He’s a very, very special kid. He’s on that special level with Ozzie (Albies) and (Ronald) Acuńa (Jr.) and all those young guys. He’s on that special level with them.”
Given Washington’s stellar reputation as an infield instructor, his word carries some weight. He goes on in O’Brien’s article to laud not only Riley’s long-term future with the bat, but with the glove as well, calling Riley “a tremendous third baseman.”
While it’s certainly encouraging for Braves’ fans to hear Washington speak so highly of Riley after an up-and-down rookie season, the path ahead is not without obstacles. For starters, he hasn’t locked down his spot in the starting lineup. All accounts suggest he’s going to have to earn his keep while being pushed at third by Johan Camargo. After his first month of big-league action, it would have seemed unfathomable that Riley wouldn’t have the 2020 third base job locked down, but Camargo remains very much in the running, despite struggling himself in 2019. Camargo’s year was worth -0.6 rWAR after hitting only .233/.279/.384 over 248 plate appearances. He’s played much better in the past (4.4 fWAR from 2017 to 2018), and the Braves appear confident he can at the very least hold the line for a year.
Should Camargo get the bulk of playing time at third, Riley could get at-bats as a designated hitter – at least in theory. But O’Brien notes that the scuttlebutt out of Atlanta pegs Marcell Ozuna as the likeliest option to see heavy minutes as a potential DH. Makes sense with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ender Inciarte, and Nick Markakis on hand to handle the outfield rotation. Riley himself could even see some minutes out on the grass depending on how things shake out.
But the real question at hand here is this: is Austin Riley the third baseman of the future for the Atlanta Braves? Ron Washington certainly seems to think so. If we trust Washington’s eye for defensive talent and assume Riley can stick at third base (or even become a plus defender), the question is whether his approach at the dish can improve enough to take advantage of his otherworldly power.
After all, Riley’s power numbers last year were excellent. He managed a .471 SLG with 18 home runs in just 274 at bats. His isolated power was .245 ISO, well above average and a number you’d hope for out of a middle-of-the-order bat. For context, Acuna Jr. walked away from 2019 with a .238 ISO. A full season at Riley’s mark would put him among the top-40 mashers in the league by isolated power. His power plays.
But even with those numbers, Riley’s total offensive contribution amounted to 14 percent below league average by wRC+. He needs to round out the rest of his game – and that starts with cutting down strikeouts. Riley’s walk-to-strikeout numbers are not anywhere near where they need to be for everyday reps (5.4 BB%, 36.4 K%). Both numbers need to see significant positive regression. The good news is, Riley looked the part in spring training, where signs pointed to Riley being able to make the necessary adjustments.
Third base is a loaded position for Atlanta – in terms of poignancy – and Riley has big shoes to fill. Putting aside the big picture pressure of manning the spot once belonging to the legendary Chipper Jones, even recent history has set a high bar for Riley. Last season, Josh Donaldson returned to All-Star form with a .259/.379/.521 line, 37 rainmaking bombs, 96 runs, 94 RBIs, 132 wRC+, good for 4.9 fWAR/6.0 rWAR. Good luck replicating those numbers out the gate.
Elsewhere in the NL East, another legend moved westward after a memorable 2019. Anthony Rendon gave the Nationals seven underrated seasons at the hot corner before joining the Los Angeles Angels this winter. We could talk all day about Rendon’s performance this postseason, but those in Washington, Rendon-as-superstar was old hat: He’s been a 6+ fWAR performer for three seasons running. Beyond his consistency, there’s simply no replacing the slow-heartbeat clutch-hitting Rendon provided the Nats on their World Series run – but someone is going to have to try.
Enter Carter Kieboom. Rendon’s nominal heir apparent – at 22-years-old – is about half a year younger than Riley, and he comes sporting a shinier prospect pedigree. He’s the 21st ranked prospect overall by MLB.com and Fangraphs, while Baseball America puts him as the 15th overall prospect (admittedly, Riley wasn’t far off, topping out as Baseball America’s 22nd ranked prospect before last season).
Much like Riley, Kieboom’s role at the outset of whatever season comes next is TBD. There’s an even greater chance the Nats roll with veterans Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera sharing at-bats between third and second. At least, that was the plan had the season begun on time. Depending on how live baseball in the pipeline shakes out, the Nats might prefer Kieboom break camp with the team just to ensure he’s continuing his development via live baseball. With a potential DH in play, there may even be enough at-bats for the Nats to accommodate playing time for Kieboom and their veteran triumvirate.
Also like Riley, Kieboom wasn’t overly impressive in his first taste of big-league action. Apologists have plenty of cause to support Kieboom even after hitting just .128/.209/.282 over an 11 game stint early in the year (which included 4 errors at shortstop). Reason being: he wasn’t ready. Kieboom’s April promotion was a case of injury-depleted desperation. The Nats were in a bind with Trea Turner on the shelf. Wilmer Difo wasn’t getting the job done as Turner’s understudy, and the Nats were off to a slow start (11-12 at the time of his debut).
The small sample hasn’t done much to lessen the optimism over Kieboom’s potential, especially after he raked for a line of .303/.409/.493 for Triple-A Fresno. The shortstop-by-nature has a long-term future at third or second in Washington, though the suggestion has been that his power will play enough to handle third, and the Nats’ other top young bat has spent most of his career at second (Luis Garcia).
Riley is about a half-season ahead of Keiboom’s trajectory, giving us more familiarity with his game at the pro level. But for comparison’s sake, Riley hit .293/.366/.626 in 44 games at Triple-A in 2019. They’re both former first-rounders (Riley #41 overall in 2015, Kieboom #28 overall in 2016), but their draft status won’t help as each looks to fill the shoes of franchise legends.
And yet, they’re not the same. Riley is a hulking light-breaker who’s defensively playing up to stick at third base. His frame is redolent of a young Ryan Zimmerman before Mr. Nat made the move across the diamond to first. Kieboom’s not a small man himself (6’2″, 190 lbs), but some scouts thought he could stick at shortstop, and he brings a contact-oriented approach. He can stroke it to all fields with potential plus power and a track record of taking walks and putting the ball in play. They’re different molds as far as third baseman go, but neither has much leeway as they try to establish themselves in the majors. Not with both the Braves and Nationals looking to contend in a season that could be as short as 50-some games.
Whenever they claim regular roles, Riley and Keiboom will be two exciting young talents to track in the NL East. The Phillies’ Alec Bohm may very well throw his hat into this ring in the very near future as well (feel free to make your case for Bohm in the comments). Bohm is another former first-rounder (third overall in 2018), but he’s spent less time in the minors and is actually older than both Riley and Kieboom. Team conditions aside, let’s say you’ve got a hole at third base and the right to poach one third base prospect. Who do you want? (link to poll for Trade Rumors mobile app users).