How and when Braves' new college arms will fit in the Majors

July 17th, 2023

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.

Hurston Waldrep has spent the past week being the envy of countless baseball fans from the Southeast part of the country. The 21-year-old Thomasville, Ga., native was taken by the Braves in the first round of the 2023 MLB Draft. Six days later, Waldrep visited Truist Park, where he rubbed elbows with and many current Braves.

“This is going to be my home in a few years, hopefully,” Waldrep said. “So, you know, just being able to take all this in. It's a goal of mine, a lifelong goal, to be here and to play at this level. So to get here, it's pretty awesome.”

A “few years” is the expected timeline. But given the fast tracks All-Stars and navigated, would we really be surprised if the wait is just a season or two for any of the three collegiate pitchers the Braves took within the first two rounds?

Waldrep, who was taken in the first round with the 24th overall pick, seems to be the most advanced of three early collegiate selections. He helped Florida finish one win shy of a College World Series title with the help of a splitter he refined last summer. Braves assistant director of scouting Ronit Shah opined it was the best secondary pitch available in this year’s Draft.

Right-hander Cade Kuehler, the Braves’ second-round compensation pick, agreed, after spending last summer serving as Waldrep’s throwing partner as they played for Team USA.

“Catching [the splitter] was a nightmare,” Kuehler said. “It was really, really good last summer, and it’s only gotten better.”

Kuehler joins the Braves' organization after spending the past few years playing for Campbell University, which has recently produced Angels shortstop Zach Neto and Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins. The 6-foot, 215-pound hurler has been described as a pitcher with good fastball metrics.

So, it seemed only natural to ask if he reminded the Braves of Strider, who also couldn’t credit great height for the fastball that impressed the Braves before they took him in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft.

When Shah responded, “He’s Cade Kuehler,” I’ll admit I thought he said “He’s Kay Jewelers.” This led me to momentarily wonder if this was some kind of reference to jewel value. Then I remembered, I just don’t hear well anymore.

Anyhow, back to these three pitchers. Looking at the stats, it’s clear Waldrep and Kuehler were the most successful of the college pitchers the Braves took during Day 1 of the Draft. But when the signing bonuses were revealed, it was clear they liked second-round pick Drue Hackenberg much more than most.

After posting a 3.30 ERA over 92 2/3 innings for Virginia Tech in 2022, Hackenberg produced a 5.80 ERA over 85 1/3 innings for the Hokies in '23. His strikeout rate rose from 8.4 per nine innings to 10.4, but his walk rate went from 1.8 per nine to 2.7. The Braves believe playing home games on artificial turf might have negatively impacted the 21-year-old right-hander, who pitched for Team USA last summer.

But Hackenberg ended up getting a $1,997,500 bonus, which was much higher than the $1,369,300 assigned to the slot in which he was taken (59th overall). Kuehler signed for $1,047,500, which was his slot value. Waldrep signed for $2,997,500, which was under the $3,270,500 value assigned to his slot (24th overall).

Yeah, Hackenberg was coming off a sophomore-eligible season at Virginia Tech, meaning he had the option to play college ball again next year and still enter the Draft with some leverage. But this investment shows the Braves see upside with this hurler, who played with Kuehler and Waldrep on Team USA last summer.

Here’s a roundup of the Minor League affiliates:

Triple-A Gwinnett
No. 5 prospect Braden Shewmake entered Sunday with a 1.005 OPS over his past 21 games. had an .846 OPS during that same span.

Double-A Mississippi
Victor Vodnik, the Braves’ No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has held opponents scoreless in 18 of his past 19 appearances. Vodnik has produced a 38.9 percent strikeout rate while limiting opponents to a .428 OPS during the 26 1/3 innings completed within this stretch.

High-A Rome
Darius Vines, the Braves’ No. 7 prospect per MLB Pipeline, could soon become a candidate for Atlanta’s rotation. Vines has made a pair of starts for the Rookie Level team and one for Rome since missing most of this season with right shoulder inflammation. He threw 64 pitches and allowed just one earned run over 4 1/3 innings for Rome on Friday.

Single-A Augusta
Owen Murphy, the Braves’ No. 2 prospect and first-round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft, has produced a 41.9 percent strikeout rate, limiting opponents to a .187 batting average and posting a 2.87 ERA while completing a season-high five innings in each of his past three starts.