This trio of youthful arms holds the Braves' future in its hands

June 10th, 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.

WASHINGTON -- The Braves don’t have an abundance of highly touted prospects within their organization. But Atlanta's success over the next few weeks and months will be heavily influenced by each of its top three prospects.

When the Braves promoted No. 1 prospect to the Majors last May, just two years after drafting him out of high school, they proved they were willing to aggressively move their most talented Minor Leaguers. They have extended this approach while bringing both (Atlanta's No. 3 prospect) and (Braves' No. 2 prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 72 prospect) to the Majors.

Schwellenbach made just two starts above the High-A level before making his big league debut on May 29. He will make his third start on Wednesday in Baltimore. The journey has moved quickly for the 24-year-old hurler, who didn’t really pitch at the University of Nebraska before his junior season in 2021, when he added closing duties to his role as the team’s shortstop.

The Braves took Schwellenbach in the second round of that summer’s MLB Draft knowing he would miss the 2022 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. So, the converted pitcher’s professional career didn’t officially begin until last year, when he completed five or more innings in just seven of 16 starts.

When you account for his college experience and last year’s post-surgery buildup, this is the first year Schwellenbach has filled a starting role in an unrestricted manner since his high school days in Michigan. So yeah, his unexpected rise to the Majors less than two full months into this season is even more remarkable.

Schwellenbach’s ascension was certainly aided by the fact the Braves are without Spencer Strider, who is recovering from season-ending right elbow surgery, and Smith-Shawver, who will be sidelined until at least late July with a left oblique strain.

It also didn’t hurt that Schwellenbach will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this December. So, he was eventually going to be added to the 40-man roster at some point this year.

But Schwellenbach stood out as he posted a 2.53 ERA over six starts for High-A Rome to start this season. This led to a promotion to Double-A Mississippi on May 14. He struck out 17 and walked just one while completing 13 scoreless innings in two starts before getting the call to the Majors.

Schwellenbach’s success at the Double-A level came as the Braves were having to decide how to deal with Smith-Shawver’s injury and Bryce Elder’s demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. Elder and Darius Vines (No. 14 prospect) were unavailable for two weeks after being sent down.

At the same time, Schwellenbach and Waldrep have greater upside than Elder, Vines, Allan Winans, Dylan Dodd (No. 15 prospect) and other pitchers who could eventually be used to help create extra rest for Chris Sale and Reynaldo López.

So even if they are far less experienced, it makes sense for the Braves to get a better feel for what they have as they approach the Trade Deadline and prepare for next year, when they might need to replace both Max Fried and Charlie Morton.

Waldrep’s rise has also been significant. The 22-year-old hurler was guiding the University of Florida to the College World Series finals this time last year. He totaled just 84 2/3 innings at the pro level before allowing seven earned runs over 3 2/3 innings in his big league debut on Sunday.

The Braves now need to assess how to handle Schwellenbach and Waldrep going forward. Both need more seasoning at the Minor League level. Additional development could prove valuable during the latter portion of this year and during the seasons that follow, when they may become key pieces of Atlanta’s rotation.

Ian Anderson might return at some point this year and Smith-Shawver could become an option again for the season’s final two months. But as the Braves deal with Strider’s absence and the need to keep both Sale and López fresh, we may see more of Schwellenbach and Waldrep than anybody could have expected this year.

Double-A Mississippi: Catcher (No. 11 prospect) went 7-for-25 (.280) with a homer, a double and 11 RBIs during last week’s six-game series against Pensacola.

High-A Rome: E.J. Exposito has hit .301 with 10 homers and a .920 OPS through 46 games. The 23-year-old infielder was a 16th-round pick in 2022.

Single-A Augusta: (No. 8 prospect) tallied five strikeouts and allowed two hits over five scoreless innings on Sunday. Kuehler has allowed just one unearned run over his past two starts (10 innings).