Braves fallback plan at third base: Camargo-Riley competition

If the Braves don’t bring in an established third baseman, they’ll have two incumbents battle for the position.

Johan Camargo and Austin Riley will compete for the job should Josh Donaldson sign elsewhere and the Braves' pursuit of an alternative fails. General manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged that's not the ideal scenario, but he also expressed some comfort in the fallback plan.

“If we don’t acquire a third baseman from the outside, then as we sit here today, Riley and Camargo would compete for third base,” he said. “We’ve seen what Camargo can do given everyday at-bats in 2018 and even when he came back from Gwinnett (in 2019). He made significant changes to his swing, his setup, his stance. If you look, the differences are pretty stark.”

Camargo has hit .269 with 30 homers and 135 RBIs over his first 314 games. Since debuting during the 2017 campaign, he’s played sparingly across the infield. He was given full-time third-base duties for most of 2018, when the team won the National League East, but was bumped to a utility role when the Braves signed Donaldson last winter.

The 25-year-old never settled into his new calling, hitting .233 across 98 games in 2019. He was demoted to Triple-A in August, but played well upon his return to the majors in September, which was prematurely ended by a right-shin fracture.

Riley, meanwhile, lit the league on fire when he was promoted in May, earning rookie-of-the-month honors. He cooled down afterward and struggled mightily to end the season, hitting .132 with a .454 OPS in 14 September games. He spent most of his time in left field with Donaldson entrenched at his natural position.

“He knows what he needs to do to get back there,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ve seen it with a lot of young players their first year in the league. They adjust to you and you have to adjust back. The work ethic, the makeup, those things are still outstanding. The talent is great. He’s still young. I have no doubt Riley’s going to be a great player, I just don’t know when.”

While the organization still believes Riley has a bright future, the contention window is open. Anthopoulos is searching for a more reliability in his 2020 third baseman. Neither Riley nor Camargo has shown the consistency one wants from a regular position player on a contender.

The Braves, who rarely expose their true intentions publicly, are candid about their in-house duo: They can help the team, but opening the season with either as the starting third baseman isn’t Plan A.

“We’re still very high on Riley and Camargo, long-term,” Anthopoulos said. “We’re just trying to get back to the postseason, win the division again. You’d like to have as much certainty as you can. Beyond that, we’re still going to need depth.”

Elaborating on the third-base situation, Anthopoulos added: “Riley, we know what he’s capable of. He knows what’s on the line. We’ve talked to him about it. He knows he’s not going to be handed the position. … That does shape a little bit of our planning this offseason.

“Yes, we’ve been clear we’d like to get more certainty, but those guys are a pretty good floor with upside. That’s why we’re open (to adding power) in some other form. It could be a corner outfielder.”

And therein lies the situation where the Braves are more comfortable with their internal third basemen. If they add power elsewhere, it’s easier to rely on Camargo and Riley to handle third. For now, the clear preference is to re-sign Donaldson. If they don’t, the Braves will have to decide where the best value is, and that might put Camargo or Riley into a starting role again.