'You never have enough pitching': Smith-Shawver, Waldrep blossoming

March 13th, 2024

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The Braves' formidable lineup should be set for the next several years. They have deals with Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr., Michael Harris II, Sean Murphy, Matt Olson and Austin Riley that extend at least through 2027, including club options. All of them except Harris were All-Stars last season, when Atlanta tied a big league record with 307 home runs.

The future on the mound is less certain. Spencer Strider is locked up through 2029 and the Braves control Bryce Elder's rights through 2028, but Max Fried and Charlie Morton become free agents after this season (and Morton is 40 years old). Fortunately for Atlanta, the clear strength of its farm system is pitching.

"I definitely think we're quite a bit more pitching heavy than we are with position players," said assistant GM Ben Sestanovich, who oversees Braves player development. "Last year in the Draft, we spent a bunch of our money up top on college arms. The year before it was more high school arms.

"You never have enough pitching, so having layers of arms coming is certainly the goal. And it has the added benefit of internal competition amongst them, which is a good thing."

Atlanta has had 10 picks in the top two rounds of the last four Drafts and has used them all on pitchers. Both of its Top 100 prospects are right-handers who should help in the Majors this year: AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep.

Spencer Schwellenbach and Jhancarlos Lara are on track to make a big league impact in 2025. Fellow righties Owen Murphy, Cade Kuehler and Drue Hackenberg are roughly a year behind them, while righty JR Ritchie will require more time after having Tommy John surgery last May. Murphy and Ritchie were the Braves' first two picks in 2022 and Waldrep, Hackenberg and Kuehler were their top three choices last July.

Smith-Shawver has already reached Truist Park ahead of schedule, making his debut last June after just 110 innings in the Minors and posting a 4.26 ERA in six outings with Atlanta. A talented Texas prep quarterback who could have tried to play two sports at Texas Tech, he instead signed for an over-slot $997,500 as a seventh-rounder in 2021. He barely pitched at Colleyville (Texas) HS until his senior year but has progressed rapidly thanks to his athleticism and an electric four-pitch mix highlighted by a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider.

"If we thought AJ would already be pitching in the big leagues and become what he has become, then we would have taken him a lot higher," Sestanovich said. "With his athleticism and competitiveness, he got off to a great start last year; we moved him quickly and there was a big league need -- and the rest is history. There's not any single adjustment that he needs to make other than just gaining more experience as a pitcher and refine how he does it. We're ecstatic."

The 24th overall pick last July, Waldrep ranked third in NCAA Division I in strikeouts (156) and fourth in strikeout rate (13.8 per nine innings) while helping Florida to the College World Series finals. He had one of the most devastating pitches in the 2023 class, an upper-80s splitter that reaches 94 mph and tumbles when it arrives at the plate, and he also owns a mid-90s fastball and an upper-80s slider. He logged a 1.53 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings while reaching Triple-A in his pro debut.

"We view Hurston as a starter," Sestanovich said. "Is it possible that his first taste of the big leagues is as a relief pitcher? Sure. But for us right now, the focus is on him being a starter and we will adjust as necessary. His splitter is probably the most devastating non-fastball in our system."

Camp standout: Spencer Schwellenbach

Schwellenbach was more of a shortstop in college at Nebraska and didn't pitch until his junior year because of a high school elbow injury that required internal brace surgery following his freshman season. He won Big Ten Conference Player of the Year honors and the John Olerud Award as college baseball's top two-way player in 2021, when the Braves drafted him in the second round.

Schwellenbach needed Tommy John surgery after signing and didn't make his pro debut until last year. His stuff came back, as he worked in the mid-90s and touched 98 mph with his fastball while also missing bats with his high-spin curveball and slider. The Braves eased him back on the mound by limiting him to 65 innings, during which he compiled a 2.49 ERA with a 55/16 K/BB ratio between two Class A stops, and will turn him loose in 2024.

"Spencer came here a month before Minor League camp started and has looked really good," Sestanovich said. "We lose sight sometimes that last year was his first full year as a pitcher. Going through that year and then having an offseason and knowing what to expect helped him prepare. He's on a similar path as AJ after his first full year in 2022."

Spring Breakout sleeper: Luis Guanipa

The Braves have fewer Top 30 Prospects (nine) on their Spring Breakout roster than any other club, but they'll still have some intriguing talents on display against the Red Sox on Saturday. Schwellenbach and Murphy will combine to pitch most of the game, and they'll start Nacho Alvarez Jr., their best position player prospect, at shortstop.

The game will also give most Atlanta fans their first look at Guanipa, a Venezuelan outfielder who was the prize of the club's 2023 international class. Signed for $2.5 million, he slashed .238/.361/.384 with 20 steals in 46 games in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League during his pro debut.

"Luis will play center field for us and show you some tools," Sestanovich said. "He's got a lot of bat speed, he can really run and we think he'll stay in center field."

Breakout potential: Drake Baldwin

Twenty Missouri State players have reached the Majors since the turn of the century, including a pair of players drafted as catchers in Luke Voit and Drew Millas. The next Bears backstop to play in the big leagues could be Baldwin, a 2022 third-rounder who stood out more with his offense than his defense when he arrived in pro ball. He slashed .270/.384/.460 with 16 homers in his first full pro season in 2023 while also cleaning up his work behind the plate.

"Drake had a really nice second half last year," Sestanovich said. "He's a left-handed-hitting catcher who can defend. We liked his potential behind the plate in college and he has worked very hard on his defense. He's a good receiver, a good blocker and he makes good throws."