Hurston Waldrep fell into the Atlanta Braves’ laps in the 2023 MLB Draft, and immediately began a meteoric rise through the system.
The Braves drafted Hurston Waldrep with their first pick, 24th overall, in the 2023 MLB draft. Waldrep signed a $3 million bonus, the top number in the class for Atlanta.
Preseason Report Card
Coming out of Thomasville High School in southern Georgia, Waldrep headed off to Southern Mississippi to start his college career. After a brilliant sophomore season in which he struck out 140 batters in 90 innings, he entered the transfer portal and made his way to the College World Series-contending Florida Gators. Waldrep blossomed as a starter for the Gators, using his upper-90s fastball and devastating changeup to help them reach the College World Series final, where he struggled in his lone appearance. Still, Waldrep was brilliant throughout the year, striking out 156 batters in 101 2⁄3 innings. He struck out 12 batters in a regional win against Connecticut, 13 in a “super regional” win against South Carolina, and another 12 in a close win against Oral Roberts in his other College World Series appearance.
The Braves likely didn’t see Waldrep falling down to 24, as he was considered a player who could even sneak into the top 10 of the draft. However, as teams continued to pass on him, he became a huge pickup for Atlanta at the bottom of the first round. It is difficult to find impact college players in the latter half of the first round, and Waldrep could be a top of the rotation arm if his command develops. His fastball and changeup are both the apex of his arsenal, but he also features a slider and curveball that could also be above average pitches, giving him the potential for a devastating quartet of offerings. This level of talent rarely slips to 24, and the Braves were ecstatic to get the chance to jump on a player who nearly perfectly fits what they target.
What we saw in 2023
The prevailing thought for Waldrep was that after a strenuous college season, the Braves would give him only a handful of starts before shelving him for the season. That ended up not at all being the case.
Waldrep dominated in his lone game in Single-A, striking out eight batters against a lineup that was just not built to handle anything like Waldrep’s arsenal. He spent three more games in High-A Rome, where he struck out 10 batters across 4 2⁄3 innings in his final appearance and was again just a step above anything else the level had to offer pitching-wise. He finally ran into similarly-skilled hitters at Double-A, and his command problems started to show on the field. He walked three batters in each of his first two outings, and despite his ability to force awkward swings and poor contact he wasn’t able to establish control over the count. He went only three innings each start, and there was the thought that September 16 would be his last pro outing of 2023 before being shut down. Well, Waldrep showed up and struck out five that day while walking only one batter across four innings. The Braves figured they might as well just let him head up to Gwinnett while he was still warm.
Waldrep’s season did finally conclude on September 23, and all things considered it was a great outing in a 2-0 Gwinnett win. Waldrep struggled with his efficiency, walking three batters and throwing 75 pitches across only 4 1⁄3 innings. But, even Triple-A hitters struggled to square him up, as he allowed only one hard-hit ball while recording 12 whiffs. Waldrep averaged 95 mph on his fastball, and evenly spread those 12 whiffs with four each across his fastball, changeup, and slider. His changeup was unsurprisingly the best of that trio with an 80 percent whiff rate, but his usage in the minors has been focused on developing his slider and fastball, and both were successful pitches in his lone Triple-A outing. This was a promising conclusion to his season, and he now goes into the offseason quite relevant to the Braves’ immediate future.
The Braves have often been aggressive with pitchers, and they value depth, especially in the starting rotation. The Triple-A rotation will be a bit crowded, but it’s not entirely clear if Waldrep will even be a part of it. His command issues are real, and he can be prone to blow-ups when he can’t find the zone, but his ceiling is unmatched by any of the Braves’ current options.
With the fifth spot in the rotation an open question, Waldrep should be seen in Spring Training as an option to open the season with the team. Even if he doesn’t, the Braves had 16 different pitchers make starts in 2023, with 13 of those being true starters rather than openers. It is hard to look at the system’s depth and argue Waldrep isn’t one of the team’s best 10-15 starting pitchers, so in all likelihood we will see a Hurston Waldrep major league debut in 2024. The Braves have no reason to be patient, either. Their window to win is now, and with players like Dylan Dodd and the recently-traded Jared Shuster failing to solidify major league roles, there is far too big of an opening to deny a player of Waldrep’s talent an opportunity to contribute to a major league roster.
The Braves will still look to add pitching going into the season to build depth and perhaps try to solve that fifth starter spot, but when you glance at the 40-man roster there are only four young arms that have even gotten shots beyond what Waldrep has received at the moment: AJ Smith-Shawver, Dylan Dodd, Darius Vines, and Huascar Ynoa. Waldrep will compete with the others in this crew for an Opening Day roster spot in 2024.
In the worst case scenario, Waldrep spends most of his season at Triple-A developing his command, where he could be either a late season bullpen option and/or a player ready to make his biggest impact in 2025. Regardless, he is a player with an MLB-quality arsenal that needs refinement around the edges, but is already just narrowly away from being a middle-to-top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Should that refinement never come, his pitch mix would work in the bullpen even now, though the depth the Braves have built should shield him from being forced into that role, until and unless the Braves feel it’s in everyone’s best interest to cut his time developing as a starter short.