MESA, Ariz. — On Tuesday, a quartet of Braves pitchers kicked off the Arizona Fall League with eight innings of shutout ball with 16 strikeouts mixed in. Over the first two games of the six-week season, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña kicked in three hits in his first eight at-bats.
On Thursday, it was Austin Riley’s turn.
Peoria’s third baseman helped his team top Mesa in an offense-filled contest with a 3-for-5 afternoon that included a long home run to left-center field off of Solar Sox starter and Tigers prospect Spencer Turnbull. This, after Riley completed his second straight season with 20 home runs, which put him just one behind Acuña and Carlos Franco for the top spot in the Braves system.
Riley finished the season particularly hot, with a .315/.389/.511 line and eight home runs in 48 games after a promotion to Double-A Mississippi. Now he’s picking up where he left off in the regular season.
“It was nice, it felt good,” Riley said. “First game, I was 0-for-4 with three Ks, so I was happy I could get some hits … that was my first time seeing live pitching since the end of the season, so I think it was a timing thing.”
Like many of the players in the AFL, Riley is one of the better prospects in his system. The 2015 supplemental first-round pick out of high school in Mississippi has led or tied for the system lead in home runs over each of his first two full seasons as a pro, and his 40 home runs in that time marks a Braves best.
Also like many of the prospects in the Fall League, Riley is working to add some final touches to his game. In his case, it’s sharpening his approach at the plate.
“I’m gradually figuring out my swing and figuring out my approach against pitchers,” Riley said. “I think that played a big part in (his successful season).”
Like most players in their first few years in pro ball, Riley has had to adjust to the greatly improved caliber of pitching. A player of his skill could hit just about anything the average high schooler had to throw his way, but things change quickly when you make the jump.
That’s true from level to level, too. A-ball is more different than Rookie-ball, and Double-A is an even bigger step forward. As he moves up the ladder, Riley, in his own words a “notorious slow starter” is finding out which pitches he can drive and which pitches he’s better off letting go by.
“It’s being more selective with my pitch,” he explained. “Whether it’s middle-in or middle-away, depending on the pitcher, I’m just trying to hone in on my specific pitch. When throws it, I take advantage of it.”
Luis Salazar managed Riley with Double-A Mississippi this year, and he’s filling the same role with Peoria as well. He was happy to see his pupil pick up right where he left off at the end of the regular year.
“It’s nice to see him back competing and having a very good day at the plate,” Salazar said. “He got a good pitch to drive, and it was nice that he a ball the other way too and put a good swing on it. That’s the way his season in Double-A.”
The Braves this past season got contributions from several of their raft of talented youngsters, including Fried, infielders Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies and lefthander Luiz Gohara. With a few more adjustments, Riley could be a part of the next wave.
- Riley wasn’t the only Peoria player to continue his hot start to the AFL season. Padres second baseman Luis Urias collected another two hits, including a double the opposite way on a gorgeous swing. At 19 years old on Opening Day, Urias entered the year as the youngest player in the Texas League and still finished sixth on the circuit with a .296 average.Urias, who is quickly earning a rep as one of the minor leagues’ purest hitting prospects, grew up modeling his game after Astros MVP candidate Jose Altuve. He met Altuve recently at a conference and got some advice from the five-time all-star.What did Altuve tell him? That will stay his secret for now. Whatever he told him, however, it’s working.
- Filia, too, has gotten off to a scorching start. The 25-year-old, in his first full season after the Mariners drafted him in the 20th round out of UCLA, collected three more hits on Thursday, bringing his AFL total to 5-for-8 with a double and a triple.
- The youngest player in the AFL, Padres 18-year-old righthander Andres Munoz, made his season debut on Thursday and was impressive. Munoz sat between 95-97 with his fastball and touched 98, and paired the pitch with a hard breaking ball in the low-80s. He struck out a pair, including Astros masher Yordan Alvarez and Cubs infielder David Bote.
- Bote was not in the original starting lineup, but came into the game in the top of the first after original third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez (Nationals) was spiked on a play at third. Gutierrez missed significant time this season with an ankle injury and is trying to make up for lost at-bats in the AFL.
- Acuña was hit by a 95 mph fastball from Turnbull in the area of his left hand and wrist on Thursday, and looked to be in a great deal of pain. He shook it off and went to first base, however, and then eventually scored on Eric Filia’s single. He was clearly still bothered by the injury as he trotted home, and then left the game before Peoria went back out on defense.Any injury to Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year is sure to cause a stir, but everyone was able to breathe a sigh of relief after the game when Salazar said Acuña only had a bruise and was considered day-to-day. He’s likely to be back in the lineup soon, perhaps as early as Saturday.
- Yankees outfield prospect Estevan Florial went 4-for-5 in the nightcap between Salt River and Scottsdale, including a double and a stolen base. In his first full season as a pro, Florial has already been a heavily coveted prospect in trade and has rocketed to the front of a stacked Yankees system.”He is just talented. You look at him and he’s a nice strong baseball player with an athletic body,” Scottsdale manager Jay Bell, who also managed Florial in the second half of this season with high Class A Tampa, said. “Everything tends to just—not to play on words—flow. He just does so many good things. He’s strong, he’s got the ability to hit the ball out of the park. He hits it all over the field. … His pitch selection got a lot better, and he just improved a lot this year.”
- Giants righthander Tyler Beede was originally listed to start the game for Scottsdale, but fellow Giants righthander Joan Gregorio took the ball instead. Beede wasn’t scratched, per se, but was incorrectly listed among the day’s probables. He’s still working with in the Giants’ instructional league camp and will join the AFL at some point soon, Bell said.