A former supplemental first-round pick, Riley quickly blossomed into one of the organization’s top prospects. He reached the majors not long after his 22nd birthday in 2019. Riley was up-and-down for the first couple seasons of his big league career, particularly when he struck out in over 36% of his plate appearances as a rookie. Atlanta stuck with him despite that early inconsistency, however, and they’ve been rewarded since Riley broke out last year.
He appeared in 160 games, blasting 33 home runs with a .303/.367/.531 line. That marks a career-high in longballs to date, but that marker won’t remain his personal best much longer. He’s already connected on 29 homers in 436 plate appearances this season, and he’s hitting .301/.360/.604 altogether. Riley’s pure slash line isn’t much changed from 2021 to ’22, but his slight improvement in bottom line results comes at a time when the league-wide offense has plummeted. By measure of wRC+, Riley’s offensive output has jumped from an already excellent 35 points above average to an eye-popping 63 points above par.
Among qualified hitters, only Yordan Álvarez, Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt, Rafael Devers and Mike Trout have a better wRC+ this season. That’s reinforced by batted ball metrics than place Riley among the game’s elite bats. His 93.7 MPH average exit velocity is more than five MPH above the league average. His 55.9% hard contact rate is also among the league’s best, as is his 17.6% barrel rate. Simply put, few batters hit the ball as hard as Riley does frequently.
Of course, Riley’s power has never really been in question. His issue earlier in his career was in making contact, but the Mississippi native has made huge strides in that regard. After making contact on only 63% of his swings as a rookie, Riley has gotten the bat on the ball around 73% of the time in each of the last three seasons. That’s not great, but it’s more than sufficient for a player with his power production. Riley still has an aggressive approach and goes out of the strike zone a fair amount, but his excellent batted ball results make up for what may always be a slightly lower than average walk rate.
Going back to the start of 2021, Riley owns a .302/.364/.560 slash in just under 1100 plate appearances. He looks like a bona fide slugger, and the Braves are surely happy to lock him into the middle of the lineup for the next decade. Riley earned a Silver Slugger Award and finished seventh in NL MVP voting last year, and he picked up his first of what the club envisions to be many All-Star nods this season.
The Braves have now committed to 75% of their infield over the long-term. Atlanta signed Matt Olson to an eight-year, $168M deal within days of acquiring him from the Athletics in spring training. They’d previously had Ozzie Albies signed affordably through 2025 (with club options for 2026 and ’27). That leaves Dansby Swanson as the lone member of the Atlanta infield not under contract for the foreseeable future, as the shortstop is set to hit free agency at the end of this year.
Atlanta also has Ronald Acuña Jr. under contract for the bulk of the decade, giving them a young position player core around which to build. In the estimation of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, the club’s 2023 payroll jumps to around $113M (not including salaries for arbitration-eligible players). They’re around $87M for 2024 and between $60M and $70M for the following two years. Atlanta’s 2022 payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, is a franchise-record $177.7M. That should leave them some flexibility to re-sign or replace Swanson, particularly since key contributors like Michael Harris II, Kyle Wright, Spencer Strider and Ian Anderson won’t reach arbitration until at least 2024. It’s a strong long-term position for president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos and his staff as they look to build off last year’s World Series title and construct a long-term juggernaut.
As Buster Olney of ESPN points out, Riley’s extension goes down as the largest investment in Atlanta franchise history. It’s the second-largest extension ever for a player with between two and three years of MLB service, trailing only Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340M megadeal. Among other players in that service bucket, only future Hall of Famers Mike Trout and Buster Posey signed deals that even topped nine figures. It’s a strong gesture of faith on the organization’s part, then, but it also has the potential to be a bargain. Riley’s flat $22M salaries for what would be seven free agent seasons would be a very team-friendly figure, with players of his caliber often approaching or topping $30M annually on free agent deals.
Such is the nature of early-career extensions. Riley sacrifices some long-term earnings upside for up-front guaranteed money, and he’ll receive quite a bit more in 2023 than he would’ve had he proceeded through arbitration. Riley reached arbitration for the first time last winter as a Super Two player and received a $3.95M salary. An MVP-caliber showing would’ve earned him a notable raise next winter, but next year’s salary certainly still wouldn’t have approached $15M. By paying a bit more up-front, the Braves give themselves further longer-term flexibility with essentially flat salaries for the bulk of the contract thereafter.
While it’s not an external pickup, Riley’s extension will quite likely go down as the Braves biggest move of deadline season. They’ve committed to yet another star young player to bolster a long-term core that should have them as consistent competitors in the NL East for years to come.
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