Braves sign Austin Riley for 10-year extension

The Braves have announced they have signed star third baseman Austin Riley to a ten-year, $212 million contract extension. Riley will earn $15MM next season, $21MM in 2024 and then $22MM per year until 2032. The deal also includes a 2033 club option worth $20MM. Riley is a client of ALIGND Sports Agency.

It’s a stunning, out-of-the-blue development that sustains a franchise pillar for the long haul. The deal buys out the 25-year-old’s last three seasons of arbitration and extends the club’s control for a whopping eight years. It will keep him locked up in Atlanta for most of his life, as Riley won’t be free until after his 35-year campaign at the earliest.

Riley, a former additional first-round pick, quickly rose to become 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 few seasons of his big league career, especially when he scored in more than 36% of his at bats as a rookie. Atlanta stuck with him despite that early inconsistency, and they’ve been rewarded since Riley broke out last year.

He appeared in 160 games and shot 33 home runs with a line of .303/.367/.531. That marks a career high in longballs so far, but that marker won’t remain his personal best for much longer. He has already hit 29 home runs in 436 at bats this season, hitting a total of .301/.360/.604. Riley’s pure slash line hasn’t changed much from 2021 to ’22, but his slight improvement in results comes at a time when league-wide offense has plummeted. According to wRC+, Riley’s offensive output has risen from an already excellent 35 points above average to a stunning 63 points above par.

Among qualified hitters, only Jordan Alvarez, Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt, Rafael Devers and Mike Forel got a better wRC+ this season. That’s bolstered by batting ball stats than putting Riley among the game’s elite bats. His average output speed of 93.7 MPH is more than five MPH above the competition average. His 55.9% hard contact rate is also among the best in the league, as is his 17.6% barrel rate. Simply put, few batters hit the ball as hard as Riley often does.

Of course, Riley’s power has never really been called into question. His problem earlier in his career was making contact, but the Mississippi native has made tremendous strides in that regard. After making contact only 63% of his swings as a rookie, Riley has gotten the ball to the ball about 73% of the time over the last three seasons. That’s not great, but it’s more than adequate for a player with his power production. Riley still has an aggressive approach and moves quite a bit out of the strike zone, but his excellent batted ball results make up for a slightly below average running speed.

Going back to early 2021, Riley owns a .302/.364/.560 slash in just under 1,100 plate appearances. He looks like a bona fide slugger, and the Braves are certainly happy to lock him in the middle of the lineup for the next decade. Riley earned a Silver Slugger Award and finished seventh in the NL MVP voting last year, taking his first of what the club aims to be many All-Star nods this season.

The Braves are now committed to 75% of their infield for the long term. Atlanta signed Matt Olson to an eight-year deal of $168MM within days of taking him over from the Athletics in Spring Training. They had had before Ozzie Albies signed cheaply until 2025 (with club options for 2026 and ’27). That late Dansby Swanson as the only Atlanta infield member not under contract for the foreseeable future, as the shortstop arrives at free agency late this year.

Atlanta also has Ronald Acuna Jr. under contract for most of the decade, giving them a young position players core around which to build. Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez estimates that the club’s payroll will jump to approximately $113 million in 2023 (excluding salaries for players eligible for arbitration). They are about $87MM for 2024 and between $60MM and $70MM for the next two years. Atlanta’s payroll in 2022, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, is a franchise record $177.7 million. That should give them some flexibility to re-sign or replace Swanson, especially as key contributors such as: Michael Harris II, Kyle Wright, Spencer Strider and Ian Anderson will not come to arbitration until 2024. It’s a strong long-term position for president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos and his staff as they look to build on last year’s World Series title and build a lasting juggernaut.

As ESPN’s Buster Olney points out (Twitter link), the Riley renewal will go down as the largest investment in Atlanta’s franchise history. It’s the second-largest expansion ever for a player with between two and three years of MLB service, trailing only Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year mega-deal of $340 MM. Include players in that service bucket, only future Hall of Famers Mike Forel and Buster Posey signed deals that even surpassed nine figures. So it’s a strong gesture of confidence on the part of the organization, but it can also be a bargain. Riley’s steady salary of $22 million for what would be seven seasons as a free agent would be a very team-friendly figure, with players of his caliber often approaching or exceeding $30 million a year on free agent deals.

That’s the nature of early career advancements. Riley is sacrificing some long-term profit for upfront money guaranteed, and he will receive quite a bit more in 2023 than he would have had had he gone through arbitration. Riley reached arbitration for the first time as a Super Two player last winter, receiving a salary of $3.95 million. A display of MVP caliber would have gotten him a notable raise next winter, but next year’s salary certainly still wouldn’t have been close to $15 million. By paying a little more up front, the Braves give themselves more flexibility in the longer term with essentially fixed salaries for most of the contract afterward.

While not an outside pick-up, Riley’s extension will most likely go down as the Braves’ biggest move of the deadline season. They have committed to another young star player to bolster a long-term core that should have them as consistent competitors in the NL East for years to come.

Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.

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