Chipper Jones was on the job – his new job, that is, as an ESPN analyst – at the Braves' spring training camp Friday.
Naturally, the Hall of Fame third baseman was asked to weigh in on the Braves’ competition at his former position and on what he thinks of power-hitting Austin Riley’s prospects of winning the job.
“He has got to earn the trust of Snit (manager Brian Snitker) and the rest of the coaching staff if he is going to play every day, but he seems to be on his way,” Jones said in a pregame interview on the field at CoolToday Park.
While Jones also is a big fan of Johan Camargo, the other challenger for the Braves’ third-base job vacated by Josh Donaldson’s departure as a free agent, he knows Riley’s power could propel the offense.
“My goodness, what he does to the lineup -- if he is swinging well -- is huge,” Jones said. “Now all of a sudden, you’ve got danger down in the six or seven hole.”
A few hours later, Riley underscored Jones’ point, drilling a home run onto the berm beyond left field in the Braves’ exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox. It was Riley’s second homer of the spring and second in his past two games.
Riley struck out and walked in his other at-bats Friday and is hitting .333 (7-for-21 with four strikeouts) in Grapefruit League games.
If Riley does win the third-base job, Jones thinks the Braves will need to find a way to play the versatile Camargo as well, even though Snitker has expressed skepticism whether there would be enough at-bats to justify carrying both on the opening-day roster. Camargo also is having a good spring, hitting .389 (7-for-18).
“I love Camargo,” Jones said. “Camargo has got to play on this team somewhere. If he’s not starting at third, you’ve got to find a spot because he’s too versatile (and) a switch-hitter. You saw what he could do a couple of years ago -- (he could hit) .280, 18-20 homers. There is some thump there, too.
“I’m pulling for both guys. We’ll see how the rest of this spring plays out.”
Jones endorses the approach Riley is taking: striving to reduce his strikeouts and increase his effectiveness against fastballs by recognizing and resisting sliders that are going to wind up outside the strike zone. Riley believes he put so much focus on "bad sliders" last season that it rendered him late against fastballs.
“If we can get him to cut his strikeouts by 20 or 25 percent, that’s 20 or 25 percent more contact, and we all know what he can do when he makes contact,” Jones said. “We’ve got to get more of that. You know, it’s just pitch recognition. He’s going to see a lot of sliders – a lot -- and he’s got to be able to handle the ones that are in the zone and spit on the ones that aren’t.
“At least he’s got a plan.”
Riley hit nine home runs in his first 18 games (and 16 in his first 48) after joining the Braves from Triple-A Gwinnett in mid-May last year. But he homered only twice in 99 big-league plate appearances after July 6, finishing his rookie season with a .226 batting average and 108 strikeouts in 297 plate appearances.
“He wants to resemble more the guy his first six weeks last year,” Jones said.
Jones also was asked what he expects from Riley in the field.
The answer: “I think he can be every bit as good (defensively) as I was out there. Donaldson was awesome last year. … If we can keep Austin under 15-16 errors out there, I think we’ll take it.”
ESPN recently hired Jones to work 20 games this season as the analyst on the network's "Wednesday Night Baseball" telecasts. ESPN televised the Braves' exhibition game Friday, with Jones in the booth for the first couple of innings.
The new job means Jones no longer will be employed by the Braves as a special assistant, but he’s as free as ever to express his thoughts about the team.
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