There was a lot of buzz around outfielder Drew Waters as a prospect, but the had the lost pandemic season to contend with, and then struggled at the upper levels of the minors, stalling his progress. He was given a fresh start in early July when the Braves traded him to the Royals for a Competitive Balance Pick.
The Braves drafted Waters with their first pick of the second round in the 2017 Draft out of Etowah High School in Woodstock.
What were the expectations?
The expectations had been in place for Waters ever since he tore up the Southern League at Mississippi in 2019. At the time, he was one of the team’s top prospects and was expected to eventually claim a spot in Atlanta’s outfield. Despite his struggles at Gwinnett, a lot of people were still expecting Waters to get a shot at some point. As a result, expectations coming into 2022 weren’t very high. Fangraphs downgraded him to a 40+ FV, and he only had a 94 wRC+ in over 400 PAs in Triple-A in 2021. The general idea was that unless he showed a lot of progress in Triple-A, he wouldn’t have much to add to a major league team.
There had long been thoughts of a homegrown outfield for the Braves featuring Waters, Cristian Pache and Ronald Acuña Jr. Acuña established himself in 2018, but Pache was traded to Oakland in the deal for Matt Olson and Waters never was able to get off the runway.
He began 2022 by homering in the Braves Grapefruit League opener, but made just one more appearance before a hamstring injury sidelined him. The Braves optioned Waters to Gwinnett on March 23 as they pared down their spring roster ahead of Opening Day. By that point, Michael Harris II was starting to turn heads and it was clear that he had moved ahead of Waters in the pecking order.
That hamstring injury continued to be an issue during the regular season at Gwinnett, as Waters was in and out of the lineup. He appeared in 49 games for the Stripers, hitting .246/.305/.393. He was able to cut his strikeout rate to 27.1 percent, but managed just 15 extra base hits and slumped to an 83 wRC+.
Waters was already on the 40-man roster so the clock was ticking. On July 11, Atlanta sent him, CJ Alexander and Andrew Hoffman to the Royals for a Competitive Balance Round pick that added $2.2 million to the Braves’ draft pool and gave the Braves the 35th pick in the draft. Atlanta used the pick to select right-hander J.R. Ritchie out of Bainbridge High School.
Waters reported to Triple-A with the Royals and hit well over 31 games. He made his major league debut on August 11 and finished the season in the majors where he hit .240/.324/.479 with six doubles, five home runs and a 125 wRC+ in 109 plate appearances. While Waters saw good results, his expected stats told a different story. Per Baseball Savant, Waters had a xBA of .195, an xSLG of .376, and his .347 wOBA far outperformed his .293 xwOBA. He also played some pretty spotty CF defense in a very small sample, which dragged down his overall value to 0.4 fWAR despite the heady xwOBA outperformance.
What went right? What went wrong?
Instead of continuing to spin his wheels at Triple-A, the Braves dealt Waters where he could find a fresh start and obtained some much needed draft capital that they used to help restock the lower levels of their minor league system. In a lot of ways, Waters is another cautionary tale when it comes to prospects.
For Waters himself, he at least got his major league career off to a good start results-wise, and honestly even his good run for the Royals’ Triple-A club helped salvage his future projections a bit.
Despite the big xwOBA outperformance, Waters did show some really good things in his small sample. He had a barrel rate close to double the league-average rate, he chased less than league average, and he showed off well above average speed and a rocket arm. On the flip side, he had the double whammy of struggling with contact, and making too much contact on the ground when he did connect. The defense also looks questionable — while a small sample, he seemed to struggle both with reactions and routes; meanwhile, some recent research has shown that players who react slowly tend to run better routes and vice versa, while Waters just looks like he’s getting the worst of both worlds.
Waters should get an opportunity to carve out a spot in Kansas City’s outfield picture for 2023. Despite his success at the end of the season, there are still some real concerns about his offensive approach. The defensive tools are there though, even if the small-sample defensive results have been rough to date, and he will get an opportunity at the major league level to try and make the necessary adjustments needed for him to realize his potential.
Based on some of his component pieces, including his resurgence in Triple-A prior to his callup, Steamer seems him as about a one-win player in half a season, so essentially a great fourth outfielder or a subpar starter. That’s more than solid for a guy whose stock was falling, if not crashing, just a few months ago. Now it’s up to Waters to make good, or even exceed, that mark.