Braves pitching prospects: AJ Smith-Shawver, Hurston Waldrep lead promising wave

ATLANTA — All of the Atlanta Braves’ top five prospects are right-handed pitchers who throw hard — in some cases extremely hard — and feature the sort of athleticism the team has prioritized at the position for years.

This bevy of elite young talent is especially welcomed by the Braves. The team has just one healthy proven starter (Spencer Strider) who’s under contractual control beyond 2024 and their injury-weakened rotation was outpitched in consecutive NLDS by the Philadelphia Phillies. The emergence of promising arms is a crucial development for an organization that hasn’t believed in building a pitching staff through big free-agent contracts.

The Braves still would be wise to fortify the top of their rotation with a proven starter or two via trade or free agency. The exact need will be determined by whether Charlie Morton continues pitching at age 40 and if the Braves pick up his 2024 option (teams have until Monday to decide whether to exercise options on players).

Regardless, the wave of young arms on its way should make the Braves and their followers feel better about the team’s pitching situation, knowing that not one or two but six or seven high-level pitching prospects are in the pipeline.

At least two, AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep, could make an impact with the big-league team in 2024, and others, including Spencer Schwellenbach, Cade Kuehler and Owen Murphy, might not be far behind them. And there’s the talented pair of 20-year-olds, Cole Phillips and JR Ritchie, making their way back from Tommy John surgery.

Hurston Waldrep, shown here at the College World Series, features an unusual split-change that can make hitters look silly. (Steven Branscombe/USA Today)

So many potential frontline pitchers on the way, and one of them already arrived.

Smith-Shawver, who debuted at 20 and impressed plenty during most of his six games including five starts in 2023, will compete for a rotation spot in spring training. Waldrep, a Georgia native and late first-round pick in 2023 out of the University of Florida, could be ready by summer if the need arises.

Waldrep, 21, made his pro debut in August. He sailed through the minor-league system, making eight starts at four levels and compiling a 1.53 ERA with 41 strikeouts, 16 walks and one homer allowed in 29 1/3 innings. That included 4 1/3 scoreless innings in his lone start for Triple-A Gwinnett, on an end-of-season promotion to get him another start after other minor leagues were finished.

Waldrep features a whiff-producing three-pitch mix including a 95-99 mph fastball, a hard slider and an unusual split-change that made hitters look silly from the College World Series through all four levels of the Braves’ minor-league system.

“It’s a very good pitch, and one he taught himself a couple of years ago,” said Ben Sestanovich, Braves assistant general manager in charge of player development. “We all saw clips of it during the College World Series, and then getting see it up close and personal in the minor leagues — it’s a really good pitch.”

Waldrep’s confidence and intellect remind some of Strider, and team officials believe that mental factor has helped him move up quickly, that it translates directly to what he does on the mound.

“We talked about it with AJ (Smith-Shawver), the competitiveness and athleticism, and I think you could use those same two words with Waldrep,” Sestanovich said. “He’s a really good athlete, and the competitor on the mound is really good as well. So yeah, the makeup — obviously our amateur scouting group does a tremendous job getting to know these kids and figuring out what they’re about. And Hurston is no exception to that.”

Smith-Shawver and Waldrep will likely be consensus Nos. 1-2 on Braves prospects lists entering 2024, but a handful of other pitchers in the organization also project as solid major-league starters including some with potential to be mid- or top-of-the-rotation types.

Schwellenbach, 23, is a college guy who is two or three years older than the others in the group, but some believe his raw ability makes his ceiling higher. He was a three-year shortstop at Nebraska and pitched only as a junior when he closed games and posted a 0.57 ERA and 10 saves in 18 appearances and won the John Olerud award as the nation’s best two-way player.

The Braves drafted him as a pitcher in the second round in 2021, and Schwellenbach needed Tommy John surgery soon after the draft. He didn’t make his pro debut until April 2023, and carved a 2.77 ERA in 16 starts at two levels of Class A, with 55 strikeouts, 16 walks and three homers allowed in 65 innings, After building his pitch count early in the season, Schwellenbach went six innings in four of his last eight starts and had a 2.81 ERA and .192 opponents’ OPS over that period.

He pitched in the All-Star Futures Game and was promoted in mid-July to High-A Rome, then went back on the injured list and didn’t pitch again until Aug. 23. But in his final two starts of the season for Rome, he pitched 11 scoreless innings of two-hit ball with 11 strikeouts and no walks.

“He’s a big-time athlete,” Sestanovich said of Schwellenbach. “Obviously had Tommy John right there after getting drafted. So, ’23 was really his first full season pitching. He’d come into close games from shortstop at Nebraska, and then his first season as a pro was spent rehabbing. So, I think it was a year for him where he learned kind of what it’s like to be a pitcher, as opposed to a two-way guy. Seeing him pitch the way he did across two levels was really exciting.”

Though he’s only been a starter for one season, his three-pitch mix makes Schwellenbach well-suited for the role, and that’s where the Braves intend to keep him. He features a mid-90s fastball that’s topped out at 99 mph and a good slider and change-up. “Throws a ton of strikes, multiple weapons — we really like what we’ve seen,” Sestanovich said.

Kuehler was selected with a compensation pick after the second round of this year’s draft out of Campbell University in North Carolina. He’s similar to the Braves’ Bryce Elder in that he featured five or more pitches in college, but Kuehler throws harder (with a fastball in the mid-90s up to 98). The hope is that paring down the pitch mix to three or four will help him throw strikes more consistently.

In an age when analytics influence everything in the game, Kuehler’s draft stock was boosted by outstanding spin rates and the sort of ride on his fastball — that’s what gives a fastball the appearance of rising — that MLB teams are looking for. It’s a component that helps make Strider’s fastball so dominant.

“(Kuehler) can spin a baseball, absolutely,” Sestanovich said.

Kuehler made only two starts after the draft, but those Low-A games were encouraging — seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball with four walks and eight strikeouts.

“We just liked, again, the competitor and the stuff,” Sestanovich said of taking another right-hander in the draft. “He’s got a pretty good cutter-slider-fastball mix. We didn’t have him pitch quite as much in pro ball, but we liked what we saw.”

Murphy, who turned only 20 in September, was the Braves’ top pick in the 2022 draft out of an Illinois high school, where he was an outstanding two-way player who might’ve been a high-round pick as a slugging infielder. The Braves made him a first-round selection as a pitcher, and in his first full season as a pro, Murphy had a modest 4.72 ERA in 21 starts at two Class-A levels, but with a robust 113 strikeouts and 32 walks in 89 2/3 innings.

“Murph posted wire-to-wire as a first-year high school kid out of the draft, which you don’t see a whole lot,” Sestanovich said. “So I think to see him take the ball and pitch effectively, both in Augusta and Rome, was very exciting. Similar to some of these other guys, we like the strike-throwing ability. He’s got a fastball that really plays, and two breaking balls. So we’re excited to see what comes in Murph’s second full season next year.”

He doesn’t throw as hard as other top Braves prospects, but Murphy’s low-90s fastball has that spin and ride, and it produced a lot of swing-and-miss.

“Again, it’s rare that you see a high school kid go out and post and make 21 starts across a five-month minor-league season,” Sestanovich said. “Murph did that, and I think learned a lot from the experience. He’s very diligent with his work in between starts and did a really nice job.”

Ritchie and Phillips could move to the top of the Braves’ prospects rankings once they recover from Tommy John surgery. Both were 2022 draft picks, Ritchie going as a supplemental pick in the first round and Phillips slipping to the second round after the hard-throwing Texan had TJ surgery four months before the draft.

Phillips hasn’t made his Braves debut but has looked strong in throwing sessions and could be ready this spring. Ritchie had Tommy John surgery in May 2023 and will miss the 2024 season. Before tearing his UCL, Ritchie posted a Strider-esque 25 strikeouts with three walks in 13 1/3 innings in four starts in Low A in 2023.

“The four starts he made in Augusta were really good,” Sestanovich said. “He struck out almost half the hitters he faced, which is exceptional, and we’re looking forward to getting him back healthy and going from there.”

Losing a top prospect for more than 1 1/2 seasons at the outset of his career is difficult, especially after the glimpse of how dominant Ritchie could be.

“It’s never what you want to see,” Sestanovich said. “Unfortunately, it has become more common. It’s hard for any of our pitchers when they’re faced with injury, and probably only made harder when they’re performing at a high level, and off to nice starts early in their careers.”

Now, the hope is that Ritchie might be able to use the lengthy rehab to his advantage the way that Strider did while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery at Clemson. Strider returned with a new fitness regiment and diet, stronger and with better mechanics.

“He’s certainly a great example for these guys,” Sestanovich said. “And I do think rehab serves as a period of time where guys can make improvements, whether that’s to their preparation, to their bodies, to their deliveries. So, once you kind of get over the initial disappointment that nobody feels more than the guys themselves, I do think it’s a real opportunity for guys to take some downtime that they wouldn’t have otherwise had and then come out the other end of it a better pitcher.”

Smith-Shawver strengthened his position atop Braves prospect rankings in 2023, a season that began with him moving from High-A Rome to the major leagues in a span of just seven starts. Though he returned to Triple A after pitching in four big-league games, he showed so much improvement in a late-season start for the Braves that he was added to the postseason roster for the NLDS.

“We moved him really quickly, and he responded to every challenge that we put in front of him,” Sestanovich said.

This would be a good time to remind everyone that Smith-Shawver, a former standout Texas high school quarterback — he can throw a football more than 70 yards — has only been pitching on a regular basis for a little over three years, since the summer after his junior year in high school. That made the former seventh-round draft pick’s ascent to the majors with the six-time NL East champions, at age 20, even more astounding.

“It’s obviously rare, and I think that that’s a credit to his competitiveness and makeup, that he was able to handle moving through the system so quickly and getting to the big leagues at a young age,” Sestanovich said. “And then, I think certainly his athleticism puts him in a position to be able to do those things. I’d say the combination of athleticism and competitiveness made it possible for him to move quickly and respond to what was a year in which he pitched in a lot of different places. So, credit to him.”

(Top photo of Smith-Shawver: Brett Davis/USA Today)

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