Just two weeks ago we saw Atlanta Braves prospect AJ Smith-Shawver get promoted to Double-A Mississippi. It was an aggressive move that made him one of the youngest players in the league, but it apparently wasn’t enough. Two games, totaling seven innings, was all it took for Smith-Shawver to earn his promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett where he now comes into play for Atlanta this season.
Smith-Shawver didn’t face kind conditions in either of his Double-A starts, so he’s likely excited to get up to Memphis this Friday for his first start. His debut in Pensacola was cut short after two innings due to rain, and he had just a mediocre two walks and two strikeouts in that time. Back home he again faced stormy weather, but his arm provided the lightning as through his first three innings he struck out seven batters and allowed two hits. He finished off the game with two more scoreless innings and a final line of five innings, three hits, one walk, and seven strikeouts. Smith-Shawver is the only player in minor league baseball who has pitched 20 or more innings and allowed no earned runs, and his FIP is similarly elite at 1.70 which ranks third in the minor leagues. His strikeout rate of 39.5% is also top 10 and second among pitchers age-20 or younger, but the big step for Smith-Shawver has been his command which has allowed him to cut his walk rate to 8.6%. Across High-A and Double-A Smith-Shawver has struck out 32 batters in 21 innings, and in his career has 151 strikeouts in 98 innings pitched.
The impact of this move is substantial as it now puts him on an even playing field with other prospects to impress his way into a major league job. Injuries in the rotation necessitate the Braves adding to the roster, and with Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster thus far unimpressive, Darius Vines injured, Michael Soroka showing inconsistency, and the trade market not yet really rolling there is an opening for Smith-Shawver. He will obviously need to excel to justify adding him to the 40-man roster and starting his service clock, but it wouldn’t be hard to give more than what the Braves have gotten from the back end. The Braves also have limited prospect talent to deal from, and with Max Fried and Kyle Wright both in play to return later this season it may not be worth it to move player (of whome Smith-Shawver would be the most requested) for a rental that may not even make playoff starts.
The Braves are willing to progress players faster than people think they’re ready for if major league need dictates, and even at Double-A he was already an option. With that last point in mind, this move may actually not mean a whole late. The Braves called up Spencer Strider, Michael Harris, and Vaughn Grissom with little-to-no Triple-A experience and would be willing to do the same for Smith-Shawver. A more important factor in this decision may be Double-A using an experimental tacky baseball that the Braves would prefer Smith-Shawver not be using. Other organizations have made similar moves and even the Braves quick promotion of Roddery Munoz earlier this season could have been connected to the overall disgruntlement surrounding the sticky ball.
In any event, Smith-Shawver is now the youngest player in Triple-A and given a relative lack of pitching experience is going to be severely tested. His raw stuff is capable of succeeding at every level (and believe me I am excited to get trackman data on him) but his command while improved still needs more refinement. He’s also not shown yet that he can pitch deep into ball games without running into fatigue, so he will likely have to first answer these questions before the Braves would consider bringing him to Atlanta. This is an aggressive move for an exciting prospect, and a show of confidence in what could be the next cornerstone to the rotation.