April 17, 2024

Just in: Biggest Questions for Atlanta Braves Prospects in the 2024 Season

The Atlanta Braves have a farm system on the rise, but there’s still some answers we need to get from those players

RSN Payments, On-Field Success Help Braves Notch $270M in Q2 – Sportico.com

The farm system of the Atlanta Braves is chock full of high-ceiling pitchers, with several intriguing position players scattered throughout the prospect rankings.

With pitchers and catchers reporting this week to get the road to the 2024 season underway, what development steps do we need to see taken this upcoming season?

Is there a true shortstop here?

One of the Braves weakest positions, on paper, is at shortstop, with only a few prospects at the most important defensive position in our farm system rankings.

The three players we’re looking at to possibly be the shortstop of the future are Jose Perdomo (#6), Ignacio Alvarez (#7), and Sebin Ceballos (#14), and they’ve all got outstanding questions.

For Alvarez, the biggest question is also the most basic – can he play the position? Drafted as a third baseman out of Riverside City College in 2022’s 5th round, Atlanta didn’t start playing Alvarez at short until the 2nd half of his post-draft debut, when he moved from rookie ball to Single-A Augusta. Opinions are divided amongst the prospect apparatus whether or not Alvarez can stick there, with Baseball America noting that he’ll suffer from foot speed and range concerns at shortstop and speculating that he’s bound to be a third baseman when it’s all said and done.

Ceballos has similar questions to Alvarez about his fit at third base – also a third baseman at college, in Oregon, he doesn’t have the benefit of Alvarez’s 117 professional games at short to begin to provide answers. But with his heritage as a Rawlings Gold Glove winner at third base, there’s going to be an attempt to try him at shortstop in 2024 to see if his preparation and defensive instincts can give Atlanta a future option at the position.

(Of particular note in these position changes is that neither guy, as of now, profiles to have prototypical third base power, necessitating their ability to stick at shortstop.)

For Perdomo, it’s more of a question because he hasn’t played in a professional game to date. Signed in January as the jewel of Atlanta’s international free agency class, Perdomo’s a virtual unknown. He’ll debut in the Dominican Summer League this season and, if everything goes right, we’ll have an opportunity to see him next summer for Florida Complex League action.

Can Hurston Waldrep throw enough strikes?

Atlanta’s #1 (or #2 prospect, depending on who you ask), Waldrep led all 2023 MLB draftees in innings and strikeouts last season, finishing the year with a start for AAA Gwinnett.

A non-roster invitee to spring training that’s seemingly in the mix for the #5 spot out of spring training, there’s a pressing question behind his development: Can he throw enough strikes to stick in a rotation?

Showing elevated walk rates in his college career, giving out free passes to 4.2 batters per nine innings, his professional debut was right in line with his college performances, walking 4.9 batters per nine innings.

New research from Eno Sarris at The Athletic ($) illustrates that command of the hardest pitch in the arsenal directly correlates to success early in an MLB career, with only five of the fifty-five “breakout” seasons in Eno’s sample coming from a pitcher who had below-average locations on their primary fastball and only one coming from a pitcher with below-average locations on both their fastball and secondary pitch, most commonly a slider.

Waldrep’s locations – namely, his inability to reliably hit them – are the main issue with his arsenal so far in his career. His one AAA start late last season saw a Stuff+ figure of 116.1 (higher is better, and this is normalized to 100) while his Location+ was only 92.4. He walked three batters in that 4.1 inning outing, striking out five on seventy-five pitches.

Getting away from the numbers and moving to the eye test, this was evident in his highest-profile outing, a College World Series matchup against eventual National Champion LSU. The Gators dismantled the Tigers, winning 24-4, but Waldrep went only 2.1 innings on 83 pitches, allowing three runs on eight hits while walking six batters, putting two more on with HBPs, and throwing a wild pitch.

Waldrep’s inability to reliably throw strikes allowed LSU to load the bases in each of the first three innings, with Waldrep eventually being pulled with only one out in the third. (What’s also devastating is he finished with only two strikeouts in the game, finishing his college career one short of tying the school’s single season strikeout record of 157, set by Alex Faedo in 2017.)

Will Spencer Schwellenbach get more swing and miss?

Being taken by Atlanta in the 2nd round of the 2021 draft out of Nebraska despite needing Tommy John surgery, Schwellenbach returned to game action in 2023. He has a solid year in the lower minors from an ERA perspective, with a 2.49 divided between Single-A Augusta and High-A Rome, but not from a strikeout perspective, with only 7.6 K/9 on the season.

It’s a bit of a surprise to see the control (2.2 BB/9) return before the “stuff”, when it’s usually the other way around after Tommy John, but Schwellenbach flashed his prototypical control while not missing many bats. The pure velocity is good – the fastball was sitting in the upper-90s and touching 99, but he didn’t generate effective spin on either the fastball or his secondaries, a cutter-ish slider and a curveball.

The Braves have had success temporarily “shelving” someone’s curveball to prioritize slider improvements – AJ Smith-Shawver is a great example here – and generating more effective spin via some delivery tweaks could cause the entire arsenal to play up and get him back on the road towards mid-rotation viability.

(It’s worth noting that Schwellenbach’s strikeout and walk rates in his three High-A starts – 9.2 K/9 and 0.7 BB/9 – were both exceptionally good, but it’s also only 13.2 innings and 46 total batters of work, so there’s no way to know if that was increased comfort as he got further away from the procedure or small sample size shenanigans.)

What does J.R. Ritchie look like as he returns from TJ?

First impressions of Atlanta Braves prospect JR Ritchie - Battery Power

Ritchie, who Atlanta took in the 1st round in 2022 and then lost to Tommy John after only 27.2 professional innings, has one of the highest ceilings in the organization but is also more of an unknown than virtually anyone (outside of the international free agents.)

He showcased great locations and velocity on the fastball as well as plenty of spin on the slider, as well as a promising future piece in the changeup, prior to the surgery.

But with the injury blowing up his first full season after only 13.2 innings, expectations must be tempered for his return. The ceiling’s too high and the stuff’s too good to be anything but cautious with Ritchie, and his 2024 performance will go a long way to determine the tier rankings of the farm system moving forward and what realistic expectations should be for Atlanta’s group of lower-minors pitchers.

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