If there's one thing that Alex Anthopoulos, Dana Brown, and the Atlanta Braves scouting department love it’s college pitching, and perhaps no college starter provides the upside of Gonzaga’s Gabriel Hughes. Hughes has been the second-most commonly projected player to be selected by the Braves, and his talent and athleticism are the driving force behind these projections. With the Braves holding the 20th selection in the draft the top end talent is unlikely to fall to them, and if they’re looking for upside and a chance to make a real splash with a starter Hughes could be one of those options.
This is why folks dig Gonzaga RHP Gabriel Hughes. A bulldog in every sense. 8 in a row retired. pic.twitter.com/9wqdXLWCVT— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) February 26, 2022
Standing at 6’4” and 220 pounds it is clear that Gabriel Hughes was built to be a starting pitcher. He has a fastball that can match that frame as it’s touched 97 mph in college and features riding life that has made it dangerous when he locates it up in the zone. Location has been Hughes’s key this season as a major step forward in his command profile is what pushed him into first round considerations. Tie in that he’s only 20 years old, and there’s hope among scouts that his fastball consistency and velocity could continue to improve and push him even higher up the ranks. Hughes’s primary off speed pitch is a low-to-mid-80’s slider with solid spin rates and a horizontal movement plane that complements his fastball well. He mixes in a changeup that has also flashed above average but has been used sparingly enough to not be something that majorly pushes his profile in a positive direction at this stage.
If the Braves feel there is command and velocity to unlock in Hughes, he could be a guy that sits much higher on their draft boards than he appears to outside observers. There is some split on his profile, with some seeing him as more of an early second round talent, and only having a track record of one season of command plays into those splits. The looks at the changeup have also given reason for optimism and Hughes is potentially a guy with three above average pitches that can slot in as a number three caliber starter. There is more risk to his profile than other college options, but an upside that isn’t common among arms in this range for this particular draft. He also presents a profile the Braves don't have in the system, as their only power right-handed pitchers are Freddy Tarnok and AJ Smith-Shawver who both have real command question marks.
9 Strikeouts over 6 frames for @ZagBaseball RHP Gabriel Hughes. 94-96 early, settled in 91-94 flashing four pitch mix, relied heavily on FB/SL combo. Dominant effort for the 6'4"/220 pounder allowing just 3 hits and 1 ER. #MLBDraft @PGCollegeball @PG_Scouting @VCervinoPG pic.twitter.com/GIjrRISUz5— Perfect Game California (@California_PG) February 26, 2022
The problem with Hughes is that if they’re looking for an arm that can provide a short trajectory to the major league level he is not really the guy to look for that. He needs a bit more refinement than your average college first round pick and one of the primary reasons the Braves target college arms is to get guys they expect can impact the team during the current competitive window. By the time Hughes is ready there is a chance the Braves have already filled out a rotation and don’t need his services. Also within that higher risk is the chance the Braves come up completely empty on their first round pick, and with Hughes that is a higher possibility than a player like Cooper Hjerpe or Connor Prielipp. If you’re looking purely at upside, should a player like Brock Porter or Dylan Lesko slide to 20 they would certainly come at greater expense but provide immensely more high-end potential. There is also a distinct possibility that Hughes is available to the Braves with the 35th overall pick, though they would have a feel for that by draft time and already likely have a deal to float him there set up should that opportunity present itself. Either way at 20 Hughes likely presents a compromise between upside and reliability that the Braves may not necessarily want to make.
For Gabriel Hughes, age and health have worked in his favor this season. He has made as much of a step forward as any college arm this season, and earned his way into first round consideration. He presents an enticing talent for the Braves at 20, and a chance for them to spread out money and land a number of talented players with their five day one picks.