Atlanta Braves 2023 Preseason Top 30 Prospects List: 1-5
By Eric Cole
We have reached the summit of our Atlanta Braves 2023 Preseason Top 30 Prospects List. I want to take the time to thank each and every one of you for reading and sharing the previous installments of the list. You support does not go unnoticed. Also, I wanted to wish all of you a happy holiday season and safe travels especially given how brutal the weather is for a lot of the US right now.
Ever since I began covering the Braves, the minor leagues have been a labor of love. While the Braves’ system isn’t in the best state after several trades and successful promotions in addition to the usual attrition, there are still a ton of interesting prospects throughout the minors. In case you missed it, here is the list so far
Prospect rankings are, at their core, a very qualitative and subjective thought exercise and nothing more. I do take a lot of data and information from scouts into account, but at the end of the day, a lot of who gets ranked above or below who is based on feel. I take into account proximity to the majors, upside, floors, reliever risk, future defensive homes, available information, and a whole lot of other things.
Saying all of that, it is extraordinarily likely that we will get a whole lot of things wrong and/or change our minds as all positions on the list are fluid. Prospects surprise us in good and bad ways all the time and that is okay. As a general rule of thumb, I wouldn’t get too hung up on small differences in rankings as it is likely that the #12 and #13 (for example) players are very similar in value.
Below you will find our Braves prospects 1-5. Thanks again for the support and we’ll see you at midseason with a new, updated list.
Atlanta Braves 2023 Top Prospects: 1-5
5. Cole Phillips – RHP
2nd Round Pick – 2022 MLB Draft
Coming in at number 5 on our list is Cole Phillips who the Braves nabbed with their second round pick in the 2022 draft. Make no mistake, if Phillips didn’t have to undergo Tommy John surgery before the draft, he would have been a first round pick and its possible that he may not have been available when the Braves picked at 20 which, I hope, emphasizes the upside he has. His fastball was already touching triple digits while he was in high school and he has the frame and talent to make that a more regular occurrence. His slider is above average at the moment, but with some pro coaching and more refined command, it should end up as a plus pitch. He does have a changeup, but like many prep arms he didn’t throw it much and with his fastball…I don’t blame him in the slightest for opting to just blow high school hitters away.
There are two concerns here worth noting. One, he did just have Tommy John surgery last April, so it will be important to see how he looks upon his return. There will be some rust and command issues at first, but if those issues linger than that could dampen his outlook. He will also need a third pitch in all likelihood as he probably isn’t going to be an uber-command, changing speeds guy so having a changeup that can mess with hitters’ timing and play off that fastball will go a long way towards a successful career as a starter. There is injury and reliever risk here, but the upside is a frontline power pitcher that could look like a steal.
4. JR Ritchie – RHP
1st Comp Round Pick – 2022 MLB Draft
The Braves traded away prospects Drew Waters, Andrew Hoffmann, and CJ Alexander to the Royals right before the draft for the rights to the 35th overall pick in the 2022 draft and they used it to pick prep arm JR Ritchie. Ritchie has a lot going for him as a prep arm with his diverse arsenal of above average or better pitches being a huge selling point. His fastball is in the mid-90’s and has gone a little higher. He has two breaking balls in his curve and his slider. He favored the curve as an amateur, but multiple scouts have told me that his slider is the better pitch and likely to be the one that is a focus as a pro. Unlike a lot of prep arms, he already has an above average changeup that he is not afraid to throw that plays well off of his fastball’s tunnel and gets some silly swings against guys that are sitting on his breaking stuff.
Ritchie’s delivery is simple and easy which gives him less risk to end up as a reliever down the line than your typical prep power pitcher. He has athleticism and the ability to repeat his delivery which bodes well for his command as well. As with all prep arms, he isn’t particularly close to the majors. However, his limited pro debut in 2022 was a strong one with a 1.88 ERA in five appearances while striking out about a batter an inning. There are more than a couple people who have suggested that Ritchie was the best pitcher the Braves took in the 2022 draft which, given the quality of the pitching they selected in that class, has us excited to see him after a regular offseason.
3. Spencer Schwellenbach – RHP
2nd Round Pick – 2021 MLB Draft
At number 3 on our list is Spencer Schwellenbach who is a guy that I think many people have forgotten about and are sleeping on. Schwellenbach was a shortstop and reliever for Nebraska before the Braves picked him with their second round pick in 2021. However, the team firmly believes he has the goods to be a really good starter for them long-term which makes his transition in 2023 one of the biggest storylines to watch. While he did have Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted, we have received multiple reports that he is in fantastic shape, his fastball is already hitting the upper 90’s again, and he will be good to go in 2023.
As for what you get with Spencer, the short version is that you have a mid to upper 90’s fastball, a wipeout slider that got swings and misses against top college competition, and a changeup that he thinks could end up being his best pitch as it has nice fade and really plays up when paired with his fastball. Ranking him this highly is admittedly a reach given that he is both coming off TJS and hasn’t yet shown that he can start as a pro. However, the upside here is tremendous and with his current stuff, his athleticism which leads us to think he can maintain his command late into games, and his upside if all three of his pitches end up being at least plus, we are willing to risk it for now.
2. AJ Smith-Shawver – RHP
7th Round Pick – 2021 MLB Draft
I am not going to lie, before he got hurt and basically missed the end of the season, Smith-Shawver was very likely to be the #1 prospect in the Braves’ system to my eye. However, given the uncertainty of that injury and some command and control questions, we have him at #2 for now. His fastball regularly hit the upper 90’s last year with fantastic movement especially at the top of the zone. His slider flashes plus or better and he throws it hard, but the command of it has come and gone. He has also broken off some nice changeups although that pitch is very much a work in progress. Overall, despite some issues with walks, he struck out 13.5 batters per nine innings at Augusta and he was very hard to square up.
He has to work out his command problems and the injury (which we don’t know the extent of) is worth keeping an eye on, but the Braves have to be thrilled that they went over slot to sign AJ in the seventh round of the 2021 draft. Even as a raw prospect, he was missing bats and getting better and better (especially with his peripherals) with each appearance until he went down with an injury. You can’t teach his type of arm speed and upside and that fastball/slider combo is going to do him wonders if he can learn to repeat his delivery better. The Braves have several pitching prospects in their system with frontline upside and Smith-Shawver is absolutely one of them even with some risk.
1. Owen Murphy – RHP
1st Round Pick – 2022 MLB Draft
Finally, our number one prospect in the Braves farm system is their first round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft Owen Murphy. Murphy would have been a fine shortstop prospect out of high school, but the Braves preferred him as a pitcher. His fastball is currently a low 90’s pitch that he commands well and has lots of riding life and spin to it which allows it to play up. He has two breaking balls with his slider being the better of the two at present and projects to be a plus pitch down the road as the Braves are trying to work it into a slider similar to the one Spencer Strider throws. His changeup is a work in progress, but the pitch shows some real promise. His feel for pitching stands out and has allowed him to miss a ton of bats.
Murphy’s pro debut was largely excellent as he struck out 17 batters in just 12 innings of work. His overall line got hurt by a uniquely rough outing at Augusta where he only recorded one out and struggled to do much of anything right, but that’s the fun of small samples. Murphy’s athleticism, command, and nice array of pitches raises his floor considerably as a prep arm. He may not have the upside of some of the other guys on this list, but he has less reliever risk and has a lot of potential as a rotation arm especially as he focuses solely on pitching instead of being a two-way player.