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Braves Minor League Player Review: Blake Burkhalter

The Braves had high hopes for Blake Burkhalter, but the Tommy John Surgery bug bit and the promising prospect missed all of 2023

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Auburn vs Stanford Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 MLB Draft has resulted in a waiting game for many of the Atlanta Braves’ top picks, as injuries have impacted players receiving five of the top six bonuses from the draft. Blake Burkhalter, a player expected to be pushed to Atlanta quickly but who has yet to see significant professional action, is one of those five.

How Acquired

Blake Burkhalter was drafted in the Free Agent Compensation Round B of the 2022 MLB draft, received in exchange for Freddie Freeman’s departure in free agency.

Preseason Report Card

Burkhalter was a star reliever for Tim Hudson’s Auburn Tigers squad, breaking out in 2021 with a 1.71 ERA across 17 appearances. In 2022, his ERA took a step back, but he turned out phenomenal peripherals with 71 strikeouts to only seven walks in 46 13 innings of relief. This pushed the Braves to draft Burkhalter in the sandwich round between Rounds Two and Three of the draft, and he was the final pick of Day One of the draft.

Burkhalter fit a profile the Braves have loved over the past few drafts, standing right around six feet tall and delivering with a flat vertical approach angle and a high spin mid-to-upper 90s fastball. His best pitch is a hard cutter/slider that makes him fit to be a potential late-inning reliever. However, the Braves surprised many people by announcing, after the draft, an intent to develop Burkhalter as a starter. It is rare for a full-time reliever to switch to the rotation once going pro, and while the Braves are currently doing the same thing with 2021 second round pick Spencer Schwellenbach, Burkhalter wasn’t a two-way guy in college.

Still, the models the Braves rely on felt strongly about Burkhalter, and with his changeup he does have a three-pitch arsenal that could fit in a rotation. Ultimately, though, Burkhalter only pitched one game as a starter out of his three total before his short professional debut ended with seven strikeouts across 4 23 innings.

What we saw in 2023

Burkhalter came into Spring Training with an opportunity to earn himself a High-A or Double-A spot and the chance to even potentially contribute in Atlanta out of the bullpen late in the year. This didn’t happen at all, as shortly into spring, Burkhalter tore his ulnar collateral ligament and missed all of 2023 following Tommy John surgery.

2024 Outlook

The future for Burkhalter is now a substantial question, as his Tommy John Surgery may impact the Braves; willingness to run him out as a starter. No one has commented on whether Burkhalter will continue to be tried in the rotation. However, the Braves have enough organizational depth to still give Burkhalter a shot to start, even if going out there with a short leash.

The Tommy John Surgery happened early enough in 2023 that it shouldn’t cost him all of 2024 as well, but Burkhalter will likely spend at least the first few months of the year building up to full strength, and it’s not impossible he misses most if not all of 2024 if there are any setbacks. This next season will be all about health for Burkhalter, and while there is a chance he could end up getting to Atlanta in a relief role, the progression of previously lesser-developed players, more recent draftees like Hurston Waldrep, and the Braves’ continued acquisition of relievers makes it unlikely Burkhalter gets a shot this season. That’s likely for the best, and gives both Burkhalter and the Braves an opportunity to see him healthy and ready to develop over the long term. He will be 23 for the entire 2024 minor league season, and when healthy, will likely be ready to step up to the Double-A level to pitch, which would shorten his timeline and not leave him as far behind as it may seem.

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