Braves' rotation could get boost from prospects

May 31st, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman’s Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ATLANTA -- was preparing to help the University of Florida reach the College World Series around this time last year. Now, folks are wondering if he could spend some of this season pitching at the big league level.

Waldrep (Braves No. 2 and No. 73 overall per MLB Pipeline) has logged 78 2/3 innings over the 17 starts he has made since the Braves took him with the 24th overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft. It might feel like it’s a little too early to bring him to the Majors. But he’s in an organization that over the past calendar year has given big league starts to fellow top prospects AJ Smith-Shawver (No. 1) and Spencer Schwellenbach (No. 3).

Smith-Shawver was 20 years old and just two years removed from high school when he made his first start for Atlanta last year. Schwellenbach had made just two starts above the High-A level before he started against the Nationals on Wednesday night.

It takes time to gain a respectable ERA after allowing seven earned runs and 11 hits over just 2 2/3 innings in your season debut. But Waldrep endured that rough opener for Double-A Mississippi and still has a 2.92 ERA through his first nine starts.

Waldrep has constructed a 1.28 ERA while producing a 23.6 percent strikeout rate and 6.9 percent walk rate over his past seven starts. Opponents have tallied seven extra-base hits (all doubles) while being limited to a .568 OPS within this span.

Before Ronald Acuña Jr. suffered his season-ending knee injury earlier this week, there was reason to think the Braves might attempt to trade for a starting pitcher to account for the void that has existed since Spencer Strider underwent season-ending elbow surgery in April.

With Smith-Shawver out until at least late July with a strained left oblique, the Braves are going to depend even more on their depleted starting pitching depth. The question is, which of these pieces could strengthen Atlanta’s rotation and which pieces should be used to gain value via a trade?

The Braves’ prospect pool is pitching heavy. The top two position player prospects are Nacho Alvarez Jr. (No. 6), whose bat should draw some interest, and Jose Perdomo (No. 7), a highly-touted 17-year-old shortstop who was given a $5 million signing bonus.

Smith-Shawver isn’t the franchise’s only top prospect on the mend. Owen Murphy (No. 5) underwent Tommy John surgery this week. J.R. Ritchie (No. 4) underwent the same procedure last year and is still in the rehab process.

So, the Braves need Waldrep and Schwellenbach to build on their early-season success. Both will be among the candidates to make starts for Atlanta this summer. They also will be discussed as trade targets when Atlanta talks to teams about acquiring an outfielder or starting pitcher over the next few weeks and months.

Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos will have to evaluate all of these current needs, while remaining cognizant of the possibility he’ll spend this winter looking to replace Max Fried and Charlie Morton in the rotation.

Double-A Mississippi: Alvarez has the frame to hit for power, but he hasn’t shown a lot of it over the past two seasons. He had 24 doubles, seven homers and a .391 slugging percentage with High A Rome last year. He has six doubles, one triple, no homers and a .319 SLG through 188 plate appearances with Mississippi this year. The 21-year-old shortstop has had just three plate appearances against pitchers younger than him through Wednesday.

High-A Rome: Drue Hackenberg (No. 10) had a 2.75 ERA through the eight starts he made before allowing seven earned runs over 3 2/3 innings against Greenville this week. The 22-year-old right-hander felt like a reach when he was taken in the second round last summer. His 12.8 percent walk rate indicates he’s still a work in progress.

Single-A Augusta: Cade Kuehler (No. 8) has a 3.60 ERA through his first seven starts. The 22-year-old right-hander, who was also taken in the second round of last summer’s Draft, has completed five innings just twice this year. He has an 11.0 percent strikeout rate and a 22.8 percent strikeout rate.