Braves load up on pitchers on Day 1 of Draft

July 18th, 2022

ATLANTA -- Given an additional pick and a larger bonus pool last week, Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown began building for the future by taking a trio of high-upside high school pitchers with his first three selections in this year’s MLB Draft.  

The Braves took Owen Murphy out of Riverside-Brookfield (Ill.) High School with the 20th overall selection, grabbed JR Ritchie from Bainbridge (Wash.) High School with the 35th pick and then took Cole Phillips from Boerne (Texas) High School with the 57th overall selection.

Sticking with the pitching theme, the defending World Series champions took Auburn right-hander Blake Burkhalter with the 76th selection, the last of the four picks they made on Sunday.

While Murphy and Ritchie dominated during their recently completed senior seasons, Phillips’ status as a likely first-round pick evaporated when he underwent Tommy John surgery in April. He was throwing 100 mph before injuring his elbow, a couple ticks higher than Ritchie and Murphy, who have topped out at 98 mph and 96 mph, respectively.

“We know that high school arms can be riskier than some of the other players,” Brown said. “One way you can cut down on the risk is to make sure these high school arms have really good command and that they’re pretty athletic.”

When the Braves traded former top prospect Drew Waters and two other Minor Leaguers to the Royals last week, they received the 35th pick and the accompanying $2.2 million in bonus pool money. The extra money allowed Atlanta to target three of the best available high school arms.

“Getting the extra money for the picks and giving us an opportunity to add these young, upcoming guys that we think could be anchors in the rotation is really, really exciting,” Brown said.

Murphy was one of the best athletes available, having served as his school’s starting quarterback and shortstop. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound third baseman was recently named Illinois’ Gatorade Player of the Year. He posted a 0.12 ERA with 137 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings, while also batting .548 with 18 homers during his senior season.

Though some believed Murphy might have been drafted as an infielder within the first five rounds, he set himself apart as a pitcher, throwing four no-hitters (including two perfect games) this year. His fastball velocity rose into the low 90s last summer, and he has always shown a plus slider. The 18-year-old hurler will attempt to find more consistency with his curveball and changeup.

Murphy proved himself against top competition when he produced 10 strikeouts over four innings in the Prospect Development League last summer. He then pitched and played third base for the United States’ 18-and-under team in September.

“The [Prospect Development Pipeline] is at the top of the charts in terms of competition, because most of those kids are going to get drafted,” Brown said. “So you're facing some of the best in your class. He was outstanding.”

Murphy has been committed to Notre Dame since his sophomore year.

“I want to play professional baseball, so saying goodbye (to Notre Dame) will be hard, but I think I'm gonna be able to do it,” Murphy said.

Ritchie’s bio for Ritchie begins with this info about his hometown: Bainbridge Island in Washington state can be found across Elliot Bay from Seattle, and is home to roughly 25,00 people. A player hasn’t been drafted from the island since Brian Coleman went in Round 55 back in 1990.

Well, the folks from this island can now lay claim to having early Draft selection. Ritchie physically matured after his sophomore year, and his fastball velocity shot into the upper 90s. The six-foot-two, 185-pound pitcher posted a 0.40 ERA, recorded 75 strikeouts and issued just four walks over 35 1/3 innings during his senior season.

“He’s a kid that, if he goes pro here in the next month, I could see him being in the big leagues as a 20-year old, two or three years from now,” Bainbridge baseball coach Geoff Brown told the Seattle Times. “His stuff is that good and his command. I think what is more impressive is his command.”

The Braves have had success with previous Competitive Balance picks: They took Austin Riley with the pick they gained from the trade that sent Craig Kimbrel to San Diego. Ritchie has the ability to make the same impact.

“Ritchie slipped to us, and we felt really good about it,” Brown said. “He’s for-sure first-round type talent.”

Had Phillips not blown out his elbow, he would have likely been one of the first high school pitchers taken this year. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound hurler tallied 42 strikeouts and didn’t allow an earned run over the 23 1/3 innings he completed before undergoing surgery. Brown saw the young hurler touch 99, but other Braves scouts clocked his fastball at the triple-digit level.

The Braves have benefited greatly from the 2020 selection of , who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 and then came back the next year throwing harder. put Phillips in the discussion of having the “Best Fastball” in the draft class.

“Sometimes, you have to strategically take guys with upside,” Brown said. “He’s a big-time athlete and big Texas fireballer.”

The Braves had access to inside info as they evaluated this hurler. Burkhalter had Tim Hudson, a member of the Braves Hall of Fame, as his pitching coach the past two seasons at Auburn. The six-foot, 204-pound pitcher was named an All-American reliever after posting a 3.69 ERA and recording 16 saves while helping the Tigers reach the College World Series this year.

Burkhalter struggled with his command during his first two seasons with Auburn. But he was much more successful this year, when he ditched his slider and developed a cutter. The Braves will have him begin his pro career as a starter, just like Strider did when he was introduced to the Minors in 2021.

“We think he’s got some Strider stuff going on with the delivery, the rise of the fastball and hard slider,” Brown said. “Worst comes to worst, we know we’ve got a big-time end-of-the-game bullpen guy.”