The 2023 fantasy baseball draft season is in full gear and as you continue to dig in and research for your draft day there is no better way to get ready than with the FREE Fantasy Alarm Fantasy Baseball Draft guide. Fantasy baseball mock drafts are popping up everywhere so now is the time to dive into fantasy baseball player rankings and MLB Projections to set up your entire draft plan. Tuesday will be Third Base Day and this week we continue the Positional Spotlight series, where we will have individual player profiles, rookie breakdowns and more.  One player that continues to open eyes and become a major fantasy asset across the board is Atlanta Braves Austin Riley. He may not be a top overall one to three pick like Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, who sits in his own tier, but Riley sure is knocking on the door to become the next top overall fantasy third baseman in the game. 

 

So where does the legend of Austin Riley begin? This is a homegrown talent and the son of a traveling hitting coach who was also punter at Mississippi State.  Riley, also a big time high school quarterback, was drafted in the first round (41st overall) in the 2015 MLB draft by the Braves and was able to see firsthand the speedy rise to the major leagues by contemporaries Ronald Acuna Jr and Ozzie Albies.  By the spring of 2019, Riley was making a name for himself in the Braves farm system with 11 home runs in AAA Gwinnett’s first 15 games that also included 24 RBIs and a .431 average. With Josh Donaldson and a huge one-year contract standing in front of him Riley’s chances of starting at third base still did not look optimistic at the big-league level until May 15th of that year when backup Ender Inciarte was placed on the IL, and Riley was called up to make his debut. This is where Austin Riley first entered Braves folklore when later that evening, he led off the fourth inning with a 438-foot blast off of Michael Wacha and the Cardinals. The power-hitting prodigy went on to hit .341 with a couple of doubles, five home runs, and 13 RBIs in his first 11 games as a Brave forcing them to keep him in the show permanently. It also took him only 17 days in the major leagues to win his first award- the National League Rookie of the Month after leading all NL players in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage since his debut. Austin became the fourth-fastest player in Braves club history with his eighth home run in as short as 16 games as this power surge drew flattering comparisons with Troy Glaus, a big third baseman who batted .256 with an .874 OPS plus averaged 37 home runs through his first four full MLB seasons (1999-2002) with the Angels.

Troy Glaus First Four Seasons (courtesy baseball-reference):

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Austin Riley First Four Seasons (courtesy baseball-reference):

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Now let’s fast forward to the 2023 season and Austin Riley is a bonafide star that hasn’t even hit his ceiling yet. He is a consistent hitter that goes out to third base every day and is locked into the three spot in the Braves batting order. He is now expected to knock in and score 100 runs plus hit 30 home runs every season. Numbers that he has already achieved as the big right handed bat has turned into one of the most feared hitters in baseball after breaking out in 2021. During the Braves World Series campaign of 2021, Riley accrued 4.7 fWAR and posted a .303/.367/.531 slash line but followed it up with an even more impressive performance in 2022 where he hit a career best 38 home runs with 93 RBIs.

What makes Austin Riley even more intriguing is the fact that he sits in one of the top three spots in the Braves’ batting order, places that are filled by more than 10% of the players who have hit at least 38 homers during any of the past four seasons. With Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson and Riley, the Braves are the only team to have three players who have slammed 38 or more homers in at least one season since 2019. Per MLB.com this group contains only 27 players which means that the Braves’ trio accounts for 11.1% of the list. This is not the 1980s and 90s where the lineups started with a fast high on-base percentage player and then was followed up by a bat that would move him around the bases. We are now in the age of power ball and the Braves have plenty of it with Acuna Jr., Olson and Riley holding down the top of that potent batting order.  To dig even deeper, the Olson and Riley #2-3 duo in this order account for two of the 13 major leaguers who have hit 30-plus homers each of the past two seasons. Per MLB.com they were the only group of teammates to tally at least 75 extra-base hits each last year and just the third Braves duo to do so in one season, since Chipper and Andruw Jones in 2000 and Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez (2003).

Riley is now coming off a monster 2022 season where he smashed 38 home runs and was one of only 16 players to score at least 90 runs and produce 90 RBI; an encore from where he hit .303 with 33 home runs and 107 RBIs in 2021.  In 2021, Riley had a slash line of .303/.367/.531 with a 136 wRC+ while in 2022, his slash was.273/.349/.528 a 142 wRC+. 

As I wrote in the “Top 5 Fantasy Third Basemen” article earlier this spring, on paper it appears that Riley had a more productive season at the plate in 2021.  However, he actually ranked higher as an offensive player in 2022 than he did in 2021 in comparison to the rest of the league. Riley put his stamp on the game with a memorable summer last year when he accumulated one of the most remarkable months in Braves history slashing .423/.459/.885 line with a .270 wRC+. 

June 26th to August 11th of 2022:

Entering Grapefruit League play on Monday, Riley is hitting a solid .292 (7-for-24) with a double, two home runs, four RBI and three runs scored in 11 games played. This is a 25-year-old that is an elite fantasy power option and still has not reached his prime. His 71 combined home runs over his first two full seasons show that he is consistently barreling baseballs up and his advanced metrics at the plate are off the chain. Last season he was in the top 5% of all major league players with a 92.5 mph exit velocity, a 115.9 Max EV, a .531 xSLG, .377 wOBA, .378 XwOBA and 50.8% hard contact rate.

As we have said many times this spring, the early options at third base are strong but it is then followed up with a big drop-off in the middle rounds. Jose Ramirez has been going in the first three picks and I would advise those drafting in the back half of the first round to set their sights on Manny Machado or Riley. Bobby Witt Jr. and Rafael Devers are being drafted ahead of Riley in most drafts, but I am Team Austin Riley. The kid is a pure baseball natural smasher with the Top-10 92.5 mph average exit velocity and an hitter’s eye that can hit more than just the fastball with a .564 slugging % against breaking pitches and .545 slugging % against off-speed pitching. He may not turn into a perennial Gold-Glover, but does that matter in Fantasy Baseball leagues? 

Riley is 26 years old with a remarkable eye and game-changing power. He has improved his barrel and hard hit percentage each season and that 15.7% barrel rate and 50.8% hard hit rate show that his power is no fluke. While being surrounded by one of the best offenses in baseball he provides a safe power floor and if you can find some speed in one of your other early to mid-round picks, Riley could end up being a top five overall fantasy player by the end of the season. 

 

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