LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In his senior year at DeSoto Central in South Haven, Mississippi, Austin Riley was being looked at in the 2015 Draft as both a pitcher and a slugging infielder. You certainly can't blame the organizations with pitching on the mind as the 6-foot-3 right-hander earned above-average grades on his fastball and curveball from MLB Pipeline's Draft coverage with the former pitch reportedly reaching as high as the mid-90's.
But Riley told teams before June that he'd rather be a position player, and the Braves, using the 41st overall pick they acquired in a trade from the Padres, obliged him. And after his first season of pro ball, he seems to have made the right choice.
The 18-year-old third baseman broke out on the professional scene by hitting .304/.389/.544 with 12 homers and 27 total extra-base hits in 60 games between Rookie-level stops in the Gulf Coast League and Danville.
"I don't think I miss it at all, really," Riley said of pitching. "Swinging the bat, getting to play every day, that's what I love to do. That's the big thing. ... They were looking at me both ways. So I was battling that and also giving them looks position-wise. But right before the Draft, I decided to go just as a position player."
It wasn't all smooth sailing for the teenager once he hit the pros. After signing for above-slot $1.6 million in the middle of June, Riley went 0-for-16 with nine strikeouts in his first five games in the GCL, with his first hit finally coming on June 30. Both player and club were committed to making sure the struggles didn't become a long-term issue.
"Timing, all it was was timing," he said. "They shortened me up a bit, which seemed to help a bunch, and as soon as I got my timing down, once that first hit got in, everything seemed to roll."
On July 31, Riley was on his way up the ladder to the Appalachian League after going 10-for-26 with four homers and 13 RBIs in his final seven GCL games. By the end of the GCL season, his seven homers still ranked tied for fourth, despite his playing only 30 games in the complex-level circuit.
Shortened swing in hand, Riley carried those results to Danville, where he absolutely took off offensively. He produced a .351/.443/.586 line with five homers in 30 games for the D-Braves, and plenty of prospect prognosticators took note. MLB Pipeline moved the third baseman up from No. 20 in a crowded Braves system last summer to No. 7 in the offseason update. He's also considered the sixth-best third-base prospect in the game by the same group. Baseball Prospectus even ranked him at No. 79 in its Top 101 Prospects feature.
"It's kinda humbling," Riley said of the increased attention. "I don't really look at that. I just want to do my own thing and play the game. Whatever the fans do, I let them worry about numbers and stuff. I'm just trying to go out there every day, grind, work out and focus on every at-bat as it comes."
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Obviously, a great offensive season at two of the Minors' lowest levels does not guarantee future success, and there are still some reservations about his defense. The teenager spent most of his senior season splitting time between the mound, third and shortstop, and while his arm can certainly handle the left side of the infield, there are questions about whether he can stick at third. If he can, that should keep his potential value to the Braves quite high. If he has to move to first, that means his offensive ceiling would have be even higher. For his part, Riley spent his first professional offseason working on his defense at Mississippi State, where he had made a verbal commitment before signing.
"Really, it was working on agility," he said. "Third base, it's the hot corner, so you have to move laterally. That's been a focus."
Riley is ticketed for Class A Rome to start his first full season in a promising Braves system. If all goes well, he could be the club's future third baseman, next to fellow top position player prospects Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson in the the infield. As he said, he'd much rather do that than pitch in front of them every fifth day or out of the bullpen on occasion. Now, he just has to prove he's capable of matching the pair's high ceilings.
"My body feels great," Riley said. "Just going to go out there and begin [where I left off] and try to finish the same way. Just keep playing well."