Austin Riley focusing on improvement, adding versatility as MLB opportunity nears

ATLANTA — Austin Riley’s mentorship program should be the envy of minor-league third basemen everywhere.

In Chipper Jones, Terry Pendleton and the Atlanta Braves’ newest major addition, Josh Donaldson, the 21-year-old’s corner is stocked with three of the past seven players to win an MVP award at his position — a consulting firm responsible for 790 home runs, 5,529 hits, three Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers. And according to the senior member of that group, Riley is not letting the opportunity go to waste.

“He’s a sponge. He’s going to soak up everything he can possibly get from you,” newly minted Braves Hall of Famer Terry Pendleton, who works as a special advisor in the organization’s player development department, said of his star pupil. “Off-the-charts makeup.”

Donaldson’s $23 million signing creates the appearance of a one-year blockade for the team’s best position prospect at his natural position — the presence of super-utility option Johan Camargo, whose breakout campaign provided Atlanta with its best third-base production since 2008, further clouds Riley’s immediate major-league path — but Riley does not share that view. The consensus top-100 prospect and the 2015 AL Most Valuable Player are both MVP Sports Agency clients and the former plans to utilize the learning experience when the organization heads to Florida next month.

The club’s 2019 contingency plan for Riley is to add versatility.

“Mizuno sent me an outfielder’s glove,” the former first-round pick said with a laugh, “which is a lot bigger than what I’m used to.”

Riley started fielding fly balls in the outfield, a position he’s never played at any level, earlier this offseason, potentially clearing another path for one of minor-league baseball’s most promising and productive hitters. His mentors have this experience covered as well. Chipper Jones spent nearly one-fifth of his Hall of Fame career roaming major-league outfields. Versatility opens doors, especially when your bat is responsible for a career .884 OPS as a professional.

Regardless of Atlanta’s eventual solution for its corner outfield vacancy or whether Donaldson can avoid last season’s obstacles on the injury front, if Riley can provide positional versatility the front office believes his bat will eventually play.

“He’s probably half a season away,” Pendleton said. “I think there’s something offensive things we need to work on, and I’m saying that to a kid that (is about to turn) 22 and hit (19) home runs last year on his way up and probably drove in 80 and hit .280 or whatever. That just shows you how talented he is and there’s some offensive things we need to work on and get better. Defensively, he’s solid. He’s smart.”

Riley did not rule out the possibility that his MLB promotion would already be old news were it not for last season’s knee injury that robbed him of a month of Triple-A ball.

“I like to think that, but at the same time it’s kinda out of my judgment. I think I would’ve put up some more numbers, more home runs, that kind of thing if I wouldn’t have gotten hurt. (It would have been) that much quicker getting acclimated to Triple-A,” said Riley, who suffered the injury ranging to his right on a defensive play. He hit 35 percent above league average after returning from the setback and says he’s healthy entering spring training.  “At the end of the day you still have to go out there and perform and there’s always room for improvement.

” … I’m just gonna keep getting better and when the time comes, it comes.”

General manager Alex Anthopoulos possesses an ultra-valuable asset in Riley: A high-upside position player waiting in the wings for a playoff contender. With Donaldson, Camargo and Charlie Culberson on the roster entering camp, there is zero need to rush the team’s top MLB-ready position prospect. Besides, a few extra sessions with the consulting firm can’t hurt.