Braves tout expectations: AJ Smith-Shofer and Horston Waldrep ride a promising wave

ATLANTA — All of the Atlanta Braves’ top five prospects are right-handed pitchers who throw hard — in some cases very hard — and possess the kind of athleticism the team has prioritized at the position for years.

This group of elite young talent is especially welcomed by the Braves. The team has only two proven starters (Spencer Stryder and Bryce Elder) who are under contractual control after 2024 and their injury-thinned rotation has been overcome in back-to-back National League Division Series by the Philadelphia Phillies. The emergence of promising weapons is a crucial development for an organization that has not believed in building a pitching staff through large free-agent contracts.

It would still be wise for the Braves to fortify the top of their rotation with a proven starter or two via trade or free agency. The exact need will be determined by whether Charlie Morton continues to play at age 40 and if the Braves pick up his option for 2024 (teams have until Monday to decide whether to exercise options on players).

Regardless, the wave of young arms coming their way should make the Braves and their followers feel better about the team’s situation, knowing that not one or two but six or seven high-profile candidates are in the pipeline.

At least two, AJ Smith-Shofer and Horston Waldrip, could make an impact with the big league team in 2024, and others, including Spencer Schwellenbach, Cade Koehler and Owen Murphy, may not be far behind. And then there’s the talented 20-year-old duo of Cole Phillips and JR Ritchie, who are returning from Tommy John surgery.

Hurston Waldrep, shown here in the College World Series, has an unusual changeup that can make hitters look silly. (Stephen Branscombe/USA Today)

There are plenty of potential front-line shooters on the way, and one has already arrived.

Smith-Shofer, who made his debut as a 20-year-old and has impressed throughout most of his six starts including five starts in 2023, will compete for a rotation spot in spring training. Waldrep, a Georgia native who was a first-round pick in 2023 out of the University of Florida, could be ready by the summer if the need arises.

Waldrep, 21, made his debut in August. He cruised through the minor league system, making eight starts at four levels and compiling a 1.53 ERA with 41 strikeouts, 16 walks and one homer allowed in 29 1/3 innings. That included 4 1/3 scoreless innings in his only start with Triple-A Gwinnett, an end-of-season promotion to give him another start after other minor league starts.

Waldrep features a combination of three whiff-producing pitches, including a 95-99 mph fastball, a powerful slider and an unusual split changeup that has made hitters look ridiculous from the College World Series across all four levels of the Braves’ minor league system.

“It’s a very good pitch, and he learned it himself two years ago,” said Ben Sestanovich, the Braves’ assistant general manager in charge of player development. “We’ve all seen clips of it during the College World Series, and then we’ve seen it up close and personal in the minor leagues — it’s a really good idea.”

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Waldrep’s confidence and intelligence remind some of Strider, and team officials believe the mental factor has helped him rise quickly, which translates directly to what he does on the mound.

“We talked about that with AJ (Smith-Shover), about competitiveness and athleticism, and I think you can use the same two words with Waldrep,” Sestanovich said. “He’s a really good athlete, and the competitor on the mound is really good, too. Well, the makeup – obviously our amateur scouting group does a tremendous job of getting to know these kids and knowing what they’re all about. And Hairston is no exception to that.”

Smith-Shofer and Waldrip are likely No. 1-2 on the Braves’ prospect lists entering 2024, but there are a handful of other pitchers in the organization who are also projected to be major league starters including some who have the potential to be in the Mid or top -types of rotation.

Schwellenbach, 23, is a college senior two or three years older than others in the group, but some believe his raw ability makes his ceiling higher. He was a three-year shortstop at Nebraska and only played as a junior when he finished games recording a 0.57 ERA and 10 saves in 18 games and won the John Olerud Award as the nation’s top doubles player.

Drafted by the Braves as a pitcher in the second round in 2021, Schffelenbach needed Tommy John surgery shortly after the draft. He did not make his professional debut until April 2023, and has carved out a 2.77 ERA in 16 starts at two Class A levels, with 55 strikeouts, 16 walks and three homers allowed in 65 innings. After building his pitch count early in the season, Schwellenbach went six innings in four of his final eight starts and had a 2.81 ERA and 0.192 opponent OPS during that span.

He participated in the All-Star Futures Game and was promoted in mid-July to High-A Rome, then returned to the injured list and did not play again until August 23. But in his final two games of the season for Roma, he pitched 11 scoreless innings of two-hit ball with 11 strikeouts and no walks.

“He’s a great athlete,” Sestanovich said of Schfelenbach. “Obviously Tommy John was there after he got drafted. So ’23 was his first full-season pitch. He got into close games from shortstop at Nebraska, and then he spent his first season as a pro rehabbing. So, I think it was A year for him where he kind of learned what it meant to be a pitcher, rather than a two-way guy. It was really exciting to see him play the way he did across both levels.”

Although he was only a starter for one season, his three-pitch combination makes Schwellenbach a perfect fit for that role, and that’s where the Braves intend to keep him. He features a mid-90s 99 mph fastball and a good slider and changeup. “A lot of hits thrown, multiple weapons — we really liked what we saw,” Sestanovich said.

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Koehler was selected with a compensation pick after the second round of this year’s draft out of Campbell University in North Carolina. He is similar to Elder in that he pitched five or more pitches in college, but Kuehler throws more aggressively (with a fastball in the mid-90s to 98). The hope is that reducing the pitch mix to three or four will help him land strikes more consistently.

In an age where analytics influence everything in the game, Kuehler’s stock has been boosted by impressive spin rates and the kind of ride on the fastball — that’s what gives the fastball an elevated look — that MLB teams look for. It’s a component that helps make Strider’s fastball so dominant.

“(Kohler) can definitely run the baseball,” Sestanovich said.

Koehler started just two games after the draft, but those low-key games were encouraging — seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball with four walks and eight strikeouts.

“Again we liked the opposition and stuff,” Sestanovich said of the draft’s other right-hander. “He’s got a very good fastball combination. We didn’t get him to play as much in pro ball, but we liked what we saw.”

Murphy, who just turned 20 in September, was the Braves’ top pick in the 2022 draft out of an Illinois high school, where he was a standout two-way player who might have been a high pick as a slugger. The Braves made him a first-round pick as a pitcher, and in his first full season as a pro, Murphy had a mediocre 4.72 ERA in 21 starts at two Grade A levels, but with 113 strikeouts and 32 walks in 89 2/3 innings.

“Murph was deployed wire-to-wire as a kid in high school out of the draft, which you don’t see very often,” Sestanovich said. “So I think seeing him get the ball and pitch effectively, whether at Augusta or Rome, was very exciting. Similar to some of these other guys, we like the ability to throw strikes. He’s got a fastball that really plays, and two breaking balls. So we’re excited to see What’s to come in Morph’s second full season next year.

He doesn’t throw as hard as other Braves prospects, but Murphy’s low-90s fastball has that spin and ride, and has produced plenty of swings and misses.

“Again, it’s rare to see a high school kid go out and pitch and get in 21 games during a five-month minor league season,” Sestanovich said. Murph did that, and I think he learned a lot from that experience. He is very diligent in his work between the beginning and has done a really great job.

Ritchie and Phillips could move to the top of the Braves’ prospect rankings once they recover from Tommy John surgery. Both were 2022 draft picks, with Ritchie going as an extra first-round pick and Phillips falling to the second round after the hard-throwing Texans underwent TJ surgery four months before the draft.

Phillips did not make his Braves debut but has looked solid in pitching sessions and could be ready this spring. Ritchie underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2023 and will miss the 2024 season. Before tearing his MLB, Ritchie posted 25 Strider-esque hits with three walks in 13 1/3 innings over four Low-A games in 2023 .

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“The four starts he made at Augusta were really good,” Sestanovich said. “He’s struck out nearly half the batters he’s faced, which is phenomenal, and we’re looking forward to getting him back healthy and going from there.”

It’s tough to lose a prospect more than a season and a half into his career, especially after looking at how dominant Ritchie was.

“This is never what you want to see,” Sestanovich said. “Unfortunately, it’s becoming more common. It’s tough for any pitcher when they’re dealing with injury, and it’s probably even tougher when they’re performing at a high level and getting off to a good start early in their careers.”

Now, the hope is that Ritchie can use the long rehab period to his advantage the way Strider did while recovering from Tommy John surgery at Clemson. Strider is back with a new fitness regime, a stronger diet, and better mechanics.

“He’s definitely a great example for these guys,” Sestanovich said. “And I think rehab is like a period of time where guys can make improvements, whether it’s in terms of their preparation, their bodies, their delivery processes. So, once you kind of get over the initial disappointment no one feels it more than the guys themselves “I think it’s a real opportunity for guys to take some time off that they otherwise wouldn’t have and then come out the other end of it a better pitcher.”

Smith-Shofer has solidified his position atop the Braves’ prospect rankings in 2023, a season that began with his move from High-A Rome to the major leagues in just seven starts. Although he returned to Triple A after pitching in four big-league games, he showed so much improvement in the Braves’ late-season start that he was added to the postseason roster for the NLDS.

“We moved him very quickly, and he responded to every challenge we put in front of him,” Sestanovich said.

This would be a good time to remind everyone that Smith Schover, a former Texas high school standout quarterback — he can throw a football more than 70 yards — has been playing regularly for a little over three years, since the summer after he was a junior. A year in high school. That’s what makes the former seventh-round pick’s rise to the majors with the six-time NL East champions, at the age of 20, all the more surprising.

“It’s obviously a rare thing, and I think it’s a credit to his competitiveness and his makeup, that he was able to handle moving through the system so quickly and getting to the big leagues at such a young age,” Sestanovich said. “And then, I definitely think his athleticism puts him in a position to do those things. I would say that combination of athleticism and competitiveness enabled him to move quickly and respond to what the year was like being in a lot of different places. So credit to him.” “

(Top photo by Smith Schover: Brett Davis/USA Today)

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