When the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel to San Diego on the eve of opening day, they did so primarily to unload the remaining $46 million owed to Melvin Upton Jr., whose $75 million, five-year contract had been the biggest free-agent deal ever handed out by the Braves and also was arguably the biggest reason GM Frank Wren was fired.
But most of you probably know that by now.
The Braves were pleasantly surprised by the 2015 performance of center fielder Cameron Maybin, one of the two veteran outfielders they got from the Padres in the trade (Carlos Quentin retired without ever playing again). And they were pleased with the development of one of the minor leaguers they got in the trade, pitching prospect Matt Wisler, a leading candidate for a spot in the 2016 opening-day rotation.
But again, most of you probably knew that.
What you might not know is that, ultimately, the most valuable asset the Braves got from the trade could turn out to be third baseman Austin Riley, whom they selected with the 41st pick of the June 2015 draft, a pick they got from the Padres as part of the deal. The Braves might finally have another big-time homegrown home-run hitter, folks.
Riley is a 6-foot-2, 230-pound slugger who pitched and played shortstop last year as a high school senior at DeSoto Central in Southaven, Miss., and committed to Mississippi State University, where his dad, Mike, was once a standout punter.
After selecting Riley significantly higher than draft experts predicted he’d go, the Braves watched him surpass all expectations – even theirs – during his first season of pro ball, batting a combined .304 with a .389 OBP and a .544 slugging percentage in 60 rookie-league games, and racking up 12 home runs in just 252 plate appearances.
“It’s been a dream come true,” said Riley, whose favorite third basemen as a kid were the Braves’ Chipper Jones and the rival Mets’ David Wright. “The Atlanta Braves are a great organization. My biggest thing is, play the game the right way. And that’s exactly what it’s all about here in this organization. That’s what I love. It’s been awesome."
He could be the best power-hitting prospect in quite a while for a Braves organization that's had a dearth of that commodity. Riley has above-average bat speed and can lift the ball, a skill that home-run hitters must have or develop. He strikes out too much right now, but the Braves are confident that rate will drop with experience, since he has a good feel for the strike zone and shows consistent ability to square up pitches.
Riley's a big boy, but he's well-proportioned and athletic around third base. He has good reflexes and instincts on the basepaths, which helps make up for below-average speed. He might someday end up at first base or an outfield corner, but for now the Braves like his soft hands and strong arm at third base, a position where they were thin in the minor league system.
Did we mention raw power? He’s got a lot of that, and it's what should get him to the big leagues and could make him an impact player.
He quickly impressed important Braves officials including senior advisor Bobby Cox – the iconic former manager raved about him after seeing Riley in Instructional League this fall -- president of baseball operations John Hart and GM John Coppolella.
Riley was asked about those recent comments from Cox.
“I take it more as, it’s just another thing that motivates me more to get better each and every day,” Riley said. “But it is exciting to hear that from them. I haven’t gotten to meet Bobby Cox yet, which I’m hoping to do that in spring training. But to hear that from him – he’s an all-time great, that’s for sure. All them guys, they’re good guys and they do it the right way, and It’s exciting.”
After 30 games in the Gulf Coast League, Riley was bumped to short-season Danville at the end of July. In both places, Riley flourished after an initial adjustment period. He had no home runs and one RBI in his first 14 games in the GCL, and six homers with 20 RBIs in his last 16 games.
After homering twice in his first 20 games at Danville, he had three home runs and 11 RBIs in his final 10 games. In 30 games at Danville, he hit .351 with a .443 OBP and 1.028 OPS.
“I spent a month or so in the GCL, struggled a little bit starting off, but I expected that just because I’d never seen the velocity,” Riley said. “But once I got rolling, it went well. Then I got to finish the season off at Danville and it was like I never left the GCL; they took me in like I was already up there from the beginning, and we just rolled on through. It was a lot of fun.”
Riley also played football in high school, becoming an all-state punter -- “My dad taught me that; it was fun” -- but giving up quarterbacking following his sophomore season due to the time-demand conflict with baseball.
He'd committed to play baseball at Mississippi State, and Riley said during his senior year that he would follow that course unless a major league team that drafting him offered, as he put it back in December, “life-changing money.”
The Braves did. They gave him a $1.6 million signing bonus after taking him with the 41st pick. None of the most recognized draft observers had ranked him among the top 100 players – high school, college and foreign -- available prior to the June draft, and one year ago Baseball America ranked him as the 48th-best high school player in his class.
But the Braves saw something special in Riley, as first-year scouting director Brian Bridges said after selecting him on the first night of the draft. Bridges and Roy Clark, the Braves special assistant and scouting guru, had both seen Riley and were intrigued.
Many teams were interested, including some that wanted Riley more as a pitcher (he threw 90 mph, or a tick or two above, in high school). The Braves liked him as a hitter, and planned to move him from shortstop -- he'd only played there as a senior -- back to his more natural third-base position.
“I’d seen him in the summer a lot,” Bridges said. “You see him hit balls and you’re like, 0h man. Then you see him on the mound. When Roy called me, I sent Roy to the tournament in LaGrange, and I said, Roy, make sure you see Austin Riley. He called me and said, 'I saw Austin Riley pitch.' I said, I know what you’re going to say, you like him better as a hitter? He said, ‘yeah.’ So we jumped right in there on him.”
It didn’t take long for Riley to make the pick look smart. Now everyone is eager to see how the kid, who turns 19 in April, fares as he moves up the minor league ladder and how long it’ll take before he’s ready for the big leagues.
By then, Melvin Upton’s contract may have become a mere footnote, a distant memory for the Braves.
• Without further adieu, let's get to my Top 50 Albums of 2015. I've put together one of these lists here on the blog annually for more than a decade, and they never get any easier, especially at the top few spots.
This year there were three albums that, to me, stood above the rest and would've been No. 1 in most years. (Last year was equally difficult, with D'Angelo's entry Black Messiah arriving in late December, the first album of 2014 that I thought was on a level with Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds of Country Music.)
As for this year's list, you'll note right away some similarities in my top three albums, by James McMurtry, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. All are brilliant songwriters who fall into what these days is dubbed "Americana" music. (I would argue that each artist is truer country music than anything on the so-called country charts, even if Stapleton's album is the only one that got much airplay on the mostly horrible radio stations that call themselves country but are really just pop stations that specialize in "bro country" garbage.)
Rather than trying to categorize them, I'd just say they're three tremendous artists who have elements of rock and country as well as folk, bluegrass and even some Muscle Shoals-style R&B. And all are songwriters of the absolute highest order. In my opinion, these are three of the four or five finest working American songwriters, at least in the under-60 division (Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, et al are 6-oh or older).
Isbell has put out consecutive masterworks with Southeastern and this year's Something More Than Free, and might be poised to take over as the preeminent songwriter of his generation. Stapleton, on his debut album Traveller, got massive exposure and recognition after previously being known primarily by bluegrass fans for his work with The SteelDrivers, and in Nashville circles as a songwriter who penned plenty of mainsteam hits for popular artists. On Traveller, he created an exemplary, soulful slab of country and Southern rock.
Still, and maybe this reflects my bias toward McMurtry, who I think has rarely been given his due as an extraordinary writer and performer, I'm going with his Complicated Game as my album of the year.
McMurtry does what he does better than anyone else, and he has for a couple of decades. I remember the first time I heard a James McMurtry song was in 1995 a now-defunct Houston station that specialized in Texas-related music. I remember the moment clearly -- I was driving my rental car, approaching the Astrodome, when the tune came on -- "Levelland" off McMurtry's album Where'd You Hide the Body. (Robert Earl Keen had a hit with the song, but McMurtry wrote it and sang it best.) I went back and bought JM's previous albums that next week, and have bought every album he's released since. The dude's work just does something to me, as he does to so many other of his hardcore fans.
Nobody pens short stories into 4- to 6-minute songs like McMurtry, songs that are essays on America's working class, its shrinking middle class, its downtrodden and otherwise broken. The man is an absolute treasure. I remember asking Jason Isbell about McMurtry a few years ago after Jason had toured extensively with him. I wanted to know what McMurtry was like, if he was as intense as his on-stage persona suggested, if he was brooding or complicated or, you know, just a guy. I'll keep private what Jason said, other than assuring you, he really liked McMurtry and, as a fellow songwriter with a literary bent, had a complete appreciation for his talent. As Isbell put it, "He really knows how to twist the knife" lyrically.
Nobody twists the knife better. Nobody has quite the efficiency of words, the details and complex characters as McMurtry does in his best work, of which the album Complicated Game contains plenty including South Dakota and Long Island Sound. Hell, he even has a little fun semi-rapping on "How'm I Gonna Find You Now?", for the first time since he famously did a little something like that back in the day on "Choctaw Bingo."
So he's at the top of my list. Without further adieu, here's the Top 50 and a bunch of honorable mentions that I also liked an awful lot.
Unlike most other such best-of-year albums lists, I have no restrictions on genre; I like what I like. My only rules: The albums have to be available on vinyl or CD, I must have purchased the full album (or in a couple of cases had them sent to me) and not downloaded it, and no reissues, compilations, live albums, covers albums or multi-artist soundtracks are eligible.
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): AMERICAN AQUARIUM Wolves, LEON BRIDGES Coming Home, RYAN BINGHAM Fear and Saturday Night, BUILT TO SPILL Untethered Moon, BULLY Feels Like, PETER CASE HWY 62, THE DESLONDES The Deslondes, DESTROYER Poison Season, ANDERSON EAST “Delilah”, FAITH NO MORE Sol Invictus, FAILURE The Heart is a Monster, THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey, CRAIG FINN Faith in the Future, FUTURE “DS2”, GIANT SAND “Heartbreak Pass”, WARREN HAYNES Ashes and Dust, HIATUS KAIOYTE Choose Your Weapon, FRANKIE LEE American Dreamer, LUCERO All A Man Should Do, JD McPHERSON Let The Good Times Roll, KEITH MORRIS & THE CROOKED NUMBERS The Dirty Gospel, KACEY MUSGRAVES Pageant Material, WILLIE NELSON & MERLE HAGGARD Django and Jimmie, LYNDI ORTEGA Faded Gloryville, GRAHAM PARKER AND THE RUMOUR Mystery Glue, NATALIE PRASS Natalie Prass, JOSH RITTER Sermon on the Rocks, BOZ SCAGGS A Fool To Care, THEE OH SEES Mutilator Defeated at Last, RYLEY WALKER Primrose Green, KAMASI WASHINGTON The Epic, PAUL WELLER Saturn’s Pattern.
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