Toolshed: Braves' Riley ready to stick out

2018 fifth-rounder carving out wild path into Atlanta farm system

Trey Riley made six appearances for Rookie Advanced Danville last season after turning pro. (Danville Braves)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | March 12, 2019 10:00 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida -- Some people have told Trey Riley to abandon the nickname. Some have said, at the very least, he should take the tattooed version of the nickname off his right arm. (But it announces his presence with authority!) He shouldn't embrace being named after one of baseball cinema's most famous (and, at times, infamous) pitchers.

And yet he doesn't see it that way. He likes being called Nuke.

The way he sees it, everyone is too focused on who Nuke LaLoosh was in the beginning of Bull Durham -- a young, charismatic pitcher who can pay for a Porsche with his signing bonus but can't hit Crash Davis in the chest with a heater when challenged. They're missing out on who Nuke was at the end of the film -- a Major Leaguer.

"The reason I got [the tattoo] was, in the end, he figures it out and he gets called up," Riley said. "That's the way I take it. I've had some coaches say, 'If that's not a good thing, take it off your arm.' But I think the whole reasoning behind it is he's wild, young at first and then he matures and figures it out. So that's what I really like."

Riley may have his share of command issues like his fictional fellow right-hander, but now in his first professional Spring Training, the Braves' No. 20 prospect is preparing to show his doubters, his believers in the Atlanta organization and the rest of the baseball community that he too is capable of being more of a pitcher than a thrower.

The 6-foot-2 hurler's path to Braves camp at the Wide World of Sports wasn't as direct as some of the fellow Atlanta prospects surrounding him on a daily basis. Riley went undrafted out of high school in Edwardsville, Illinois, in 2016. He attended a solid program at Oklahoma State University instead, hoping he could show off against Big 12 competition before eventually hearing his name called in the 2019 Draft. It didn't work out that way. He made three appearances for the Cowboys in spring 2017. He retired only three batters and walked just as many. He surrendered five earned runs on those three free passes and four hits. It was a small sample size, but the fact that Riley struggled to get into games spoke to his difficulties to stand out.

"I was having some issues with my release point," he said. "I was a little banged up. I had my patellar tendinitis in my knee. Just really needed to change my scenery up. I wasn't really comfortable with my throwing."

Instead of staying in Stillwater, he transferred back to his home state to John A. Logan Community College in the hopes of rebuilding his stock either for another Division I chance or even a Draft spot in 2018. (The rules stipulate that junior college players are immediately eligible for Draft selection, even if they've only been out of high school for one or two years.) Even when he was at his wildest, he still stood out with a plus fastball that can hit the upper-90s with movement and an impressive slider that can show wipeout action. 

Other colleges never lost touch with Riley. Missouri State even signed him to a scholarship in November 2017 before his season at John A. Logan had even begun. Pro scouts weren't too far behind.

"My very first bullpen there, I had college scouts there already," Riley said. "I hadn't thrown off the mound much like the old summer since transferring. But I thought, 'OK, this is real.' The longer in the year, the more scouts there were in the stands than fans there. You notice them. But it's not in your head the whole time. You have a job to do, and you get it done."

Now that he was healthy and getting ample time on the mound, Riley's mix of stuff and results became too good to ignore -- not an easy task for even a former D-I pitcher who had dropped in the collegiate ranks. He made 13 appearances at John A. Logan -- all before May 11 -- giving pro teams plenty of time to chew on his performance ahead of the Draft in June. He posted a 1.85 ERA and struck out 117 in 77 2/3 innings, good for a 13.6 K/9. He also walked 32 for a BB/9 rate of 3.7. That wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't a disaster in the control department either.

Part of what worked was the coaching staff letting Riley be raw by design, and he took full advantage.

"I went in there, and they told me they were going to let me do my thing," Riley said. "It wasn't a whole lot of them coaching me up and stuff. They knew I had the stuff. They said, 'Go be you.' It was awesome."

Scout interest picked up throughout the summer to the point where Riley was pretty sure he wouldn't be attending his second D-I program in the fall after all.

"I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, I've got to impress these scouts, I've got to impress these scouts,'" he said. "They send the questionnaires out. I was getting them in the fall, and at some points, I had more questionnaires to fill out than homework. I was like, 'This is real.' Phone calls, text messages -- they'd say, 'We're going to be at this game. When are you throwing next? How are you feeling?' Standing out was just a matter of me doing my thing and not thinking about things too hard because you start overthinking and you'll drown yourself."

After flirting with taking him in the fourth round, the Braves ended up taking Riley one round later with the 142nd overall pick. He signed for $450,000, a couple notches above the $371,900 slot value for that selection. The second he signed on the dotted line, Riley knew the work would have to begin to transform him from a hard thrower with a good breaking ball to an actual pitcher who isn't just trying to blow it past the competition.

"They said I had a live arm," Riley said of his early discussions with the Braves. "I'm a raw talent. The slider can be a wipeout pitch when it's at its best. So I knew I just had to come in here, clean up my delivery, command the ball better. At junior college, hitters are good, but it's not as much D-I-level guys. You can just blow it by them, even though there are a lot of guys that are good. Being here, everyone can hit, so you really have to hone in command."

Starting at Rookie Advanced Danville and continuing into instructs in the fall and the offseason in the winter, work on the delivery focused on keeping Riley from overthrowing. His momentum often carried him away from the bump, helping his velocity tick up in front of many scouts' radars, but keeping him from finding the zone with regularity.

"A lot of it was going into my lower half and front side and staying with the rubber because I had a tendency to fall down the mound and try to get to home as quickly as possible," he said. "But now, I'm really letting my arm get out before I get down on the mound and keeping the ball low in the strike zone, which is a lot better.

"Make your misses smaller. Aim small, miss small. You can get away with a lot more in JuCo, but here, you really have to make your pitches."

Offseason MiLB include

It's still a work in progress. Riley's first trip to the Minors looked more like his Oklahoma State days than his JuCo ones. He struck out 13 over six appearances (nine innings) in the Appalachian League, but also walked 10 in that small sample. He allowed eight earned runs and 10 hits, leaving a lot of crooked numbers on his MiLB.com player page for the time being. 

But the Braves signed up for a project in Riley, and they're prepared for the long haul with the right-hander.

"Everybody has their own plan, and everybody has their own maturation rate," said Atlanta director of player development Dom Chiti. "Everybody is different. Some guys are going to get it quick. Some guys are going to get it slow. … He's got to solidify his delivery a little bit and repeat it a little more, but those are common threads for all young pitchers."

Now ranked among the top 20 prospects in one of the game's best systems, Riley represents perhaps the third wave of impressive Braves arms -- the first being those who made the Majors last season like Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint and the second being one step behind in Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller. Riley's father, P.J. -- a 15th-round pick by the Astros in 1989 -- warned him Spring Training would be different than anything he'd seen before. He'd be surrounded by many more prospects that he'd need to impress with and against. For now, he's still playing 'em one day at a time, but with a much better foundation than he'd have if these past few years played out differently.

For this Nuke, John A. Logan was his Crash Davis.

"I 100 percent believe in the JuCo route," Riley said. "It was one of the best times of my life. I really think going there helped propel me to get here. I'll tell that to anyone who is questioning whether they have to go D-I. Is it the only option? Not a chance. You can be seen at JuCo."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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