Few individuals are as potentially significant to the Braves’ rebuilding plans as third-base prospect Austin Riley, and in the past week the big, power-hitting Mississippi native has provided reason for optimism.
Riley went 2-for-3 and hit his second tape-measure homer in three starts over six days, a pulled shot that sailed over a high left-field wall and trees behind it at Dunedin Stadium during a 5-1 Braves win against the Blue Jays.
Rio Ruiz and Carlos Franco also homered for the Braves, who’ve won four in a row since a 2-6-1 start.
His sixth-inning leadoff homer Tuesday was the second in 19 spring at-bats for Riley, who crushed an opposite-field homer in a three-hit game Thursday against the Tigers. After starting out the spring 0-for-8 in his first five games, Riley is 4-for-11 with a double and two homers in his past four games, including three starts. He’s also been hit by three pitches in that span including one to start the fourth inning Tuesday before Ruiz’s two-run homer.
“(Riley’s two) might have been the two longest homers, the one the other day and that one, that I’ve seen all spring,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And then I really liked the last at-bat (an eighth-inning single), they kind of got him fishing for a couple of breaking balls and he was in there ready to hit the next one. That was as impressive as the homer. Because they’re pitching him tough, they’re pitching him like he’s leading the league in homers or something. Which is good, because he’s seeing a lot of early count breaking balls, they’re trying to speed him up.
“It’s been a good experience for him, and he’s showing, again, why we like this kid so much.”
Riley, who turns 21 on April 2, hit 20 homers last season in 129 games in high Single-A and Double-A, batting .315 with eight homers and a .900 OPS in 48 games (203 plate appearances) after a promotion to Double-A Mississippi.
The Braves wouldn’t commit to a multi-year contract for a free-agent third baseman this offseason because they think Riley could be ready as soon as 2019 and didn’t want to block his path if he continues progressing as he did last summer. If he keeps making strides and shows he can be the long-term answer at the position, it would be a boon to the rebuild and enable the Braves to spend their available money next winter on other needs.
Ruiz’s homer was his first of the spring and only his fifth hit. He’s batting .172 with one walk and has 13 strikeouts in 29 at-bats including two strikeouts Tuesday.
He’s competing for the third base job with front-runner Johan Camargo. Ruiz spent a lot of time this winter at home in Los Angeles with a noted swing coach, making adjustments aimed at helping him get more loft so he can hit more homers.
“He changed his swing,” Snitker said. “When everything flows and he’s on time, it’s pretty good. I’m sure there’s still some adjustments when you’re working on a swing. Popped out one today pretty good. So it’s coming.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com