The Braves just promoted Austin Riley, a 22-year-old third baseman, and plugged him into Wednesday night's lineup — as a left fielder. There can be no argument that Riley deserves to be playing here somewhere: He hit 15 homers and amassed an OPS of 1.057 in 37 games at Triple-A Gwinnett.
“A couple of weeks ago, we thought it might bottom out (for Riley),” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “But it didn’t.”
At issue is whether the Braves, with Riley almost ready, needed to spend $23 million for one year of Josh Donaldson’s services. Donaldson is a third baseman. In his prime, which wasn’t all that long ago, he was among the five best position players in baseball. And he has not, we stipulate, been anything approaching a bust.
With a quarter of the season gone, Donaldson has a WAR value, per Baseball-Reference, of 1.2 Over a full season, that’d be 4.6. In 2018, the only Brave to better that was Freddie Freeman at 6.1. As we speak, Donaldson is fifth among Braves position players in WAR. He’s also fifth among big-league third baseman. He hasn’t been the Donaldson who, from 2013 through 2016, averaged a 7.8, but he’s on track to give the Braves their money’s worth.
The latest rough analytic estimate holds that a team can expect to pay at least $7 million on the open market for 1.0 worth of WAR. For $23 million, the Braves had reason to expect 3.3. At 33, Donaldson is on track to better that by 1.3. As deals go, this isn’t shaping up to be another B.J. Upton. This has been as it seemed on the November day when Alex Anthopoulos bought the guy he brought to Toronto in a previous posting.
The only problem with spending $23 million for a former MVP is that Anthopoulos spent big to bolster a position that didn’t appear to be a weakness. At third base, the Braves ranked 14th among 30 MLB teams in FanGraphs WAR last season. Johan Camargo, who played 114 games there, ranked fifth among Braves’ position players with a 3.7 WAR. He hasn’t done much of anything this season, but that could be because, with the advent of Donaldson, he no longer has a regular place to play.
Camargo is 25. He’s making $575,000 this season. Coming fast was Riley, the third man — after Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka — drafted by the Braves in 2015. In 2016, Riley hit 20 home runs for Low-A Rome, which then-GM John Coppolella deemed “our flagship.” Other members of that Sally League championship team: Ronald Acuna, Allard, Max Fried, Soroka and Touki Toussaint.
Baseball America rated Riley its 22nd-best prospect this spring. With Donaldson and Camargo – and Charlie Culberson, another super-utility guy – on the big-league roster, there was no place for Riley coming out of spring training. Even as he was smashing 13 homers over 18 games, there was no place until Ender Inciarte tweaked his back Tuesday. To their credit, the Braves had begun to prepare for such an eventuality, subjecting him to a crash course in outfield play.
Riley got word of his promotion about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday in Buffalo. He'd just hit yet another homer, a grand slam, and was sitting in pitcher Bryse Wilson's hotel room. Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill tried to call with the good word, but Riley didn't answer. Berryhill called Allard, who handed the phone to his roommate. By 10 a.m., Riley was on a plane bound for Hartsfield-Jackson. By 1, he was at SunTrust Park, where he'd find his name on the lineup card, starting in left and batting sixth.
This, according to Riley, was Snitker’s greeting: “My god, you’re killing it.”
(The onslaught would continue. His first time up, Riley struck out. His second time up, he drove a Michael Wacha fastball 438 over the wall in left-center. It was, in every sense, a big-league home run.)
Snitker said he had no hesitation in inserting the career third baseman into a major-league outfield: “He’s a baseball player.” He also said Riley would get time at third base “to give Josh days off.”
So long as Inciarte is out, there's a place in this lineup for both Donaldson and Riley. It will be intriguing to see what happens when Inciarte, who's off to a wretched start, is fit to return. Does he become the late-inning defensive replacement? Does Matt Joyce, who has been pretty good, get bumped?
If Riley is indeed a keeper, he’ll be the Braves’ third baseman in 2020. That’s why the Braves weren’t willing to go beyond one year for Donaldson. But that contract, while not outrageous on its face, represents $23 million the Braves could have spent on, say, the bullpen. Or another starting pitcher. Or anything.
Many have spent the offseason ripping the Braves for pinching pennies, as if $23 million for Donaldson was Monopoly money. That the Braves are shuffling relievers on a daily basis — Jerry Blevins, bought recently for $1, was designated for assignment Tuesday; Jesse Biddle got the gate Wednesday — tells us that their offseason gamble on bullpen continuity has failed. Anthopoulos has surely left money unspent to go shopping come June, but the guess is that his reserve fund isn't a king's ransom. For all our plaints, Craig Kimbrel might never walk through that door.
The Braves aren’t the Dodgers, and they don’t have the Dodgers’ TV deal, and they do have faceless Liberty Media as an owner. To survive as a contending team, they must maximize every dollar. On the one hand, Donaldson has been a solid addition. On the other, he hasn’t yet been a difference-maker, and he plays a position at which the Braves might have been better served relying on in-house resources.
Yes, this a second-guess, and those are always cheap and easy. And who knows? Donaldson could well hit the home run that wins Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. He hasn’t been a bad hire. Just not sure he was the right hire.