We continue our look into the best of the best in the Atlanta Braves system. In part one of our awards series we covered the minor league player of the year, and today we are going to cover the best pitcher in the Atlanta Braves system. It should come as little surprise, but that pitcher is AJ Smith-Shawver.
Your Winner: AJ Smith-Shawver
AJ Smith-Shawver was far from the system’s leader in innings pitched, as he threw just 60 at the minor league level this season, but he was undoubtedly the most impactful and clearly separated himself as the best pitching prospect in just a few short weeks. Smith-Shawver was somewhat of a wildcard coming into the year, being named our preseason number one prospect but also carrying an air of mystery after his 2022 season ended on the injured list. After one game it was clear Smith-Shawver was on a mission, as he struck out eight batters in just 4 2⁄3 innings in his season debut with Rome. A game later he upped his game once again, going with nine strikeouts in 4 1⁄3 innings, and after five one-hit innings in his third outing the Braves made the swift move to promote him to Double-A.
As one of the youngest players in the Southern League Smith-Shawver had a tough task, and his debut was a bit stunted by rain in Pensacola. So after a mediocre, shortened first outing Smith-Shawver went home to Pearl and dominated with seven more strikeouts across five scoreless innings. It was already mid-May for Smith-Shawver, and yet he had still not allowed a single run while striking out 39.5% of the batters he faced. This was enough for the Braves to make the surprising call to promote him to Gwinnett, where he would be the youngest player in the International League.
Smith-Shawver was never expected to do all of this. While the Braves had been high on his athleticism and arm talent when they took him in the seventh round in 2021, no one ever envisioned that the player who had just started pitching the year before would be on the precipice of the major leagues less than two years later. Still, there he sat in Gwinnett’s rotation, and he ended May with a career-long seven inning outing during which he struck out eight batters. With the Braves struggling to find stability in the rotation Smith-Shawver was then promoted again, making his major league debut on June 4th after starting the season in High-A less than two months prior.
Smith-Shawver’s season since has been a bit of a roller coaster ride that hasn’t seen the consistent dominance he showed at the lower levels. This is not surprising at all for a player who is just 20 years old, and Smith-Shawver has generally held his own against much older competition. He has played most of his season at Triple-A, during which time he has still struck out 9.9 batters per nine and put up a 4.47 FIP despite a his increase in walks. Smith-Shawver has also added a curveball and a new-look split changeup this season, further diversifying his arsenal and proving his immense pitching acumen. In total Smith-Shawver has a 2.85 ERA in his 60 innings this season and ranks second in the system with a 30.9% strikeout rate. He is among the top 50 prospects in all of minor league baseball, and is clearly the best prospect in a system that heavily invests in pitching. While his ascent was a bit premature to his ability to be a star at the major league level, his continued development and his performance as a 20 year old has most seeing bright future for Smith-Shawver.
Allan Winans was certainly not the most highly-touted prospect coming into the season, yet every step of the way he has been the most consistent pitcher in the Braves system. Across 122 innings he had a 2.95 ERA for Triple-A Gwinnett, and did enough to earn a few looks at the major league level during which he has put up a 2.76 FIP and 3.19 xERA. Winans was acquired from the Mets in the minor league portion of the rule 5 draft, yet has gone on to make the major leagues at age 27 and continue to hold down a spot in the Braves system.
We waited on Spencer Schwellenbach for a long time, and finally in 2023 we got to see the Braves 2021 first rounder back from Tommy John surgery. He ranked behind Smith-Shawver and Winans in votes, but in his time on the field put up as strong a performance as anyone in the system. His 3.49 FIP was just behind Smith-Shawver’s 3.49, and his 2.49 ERA even beat out Smith-Shawver for the best number among players with 60 or more innings. Schwellenbach took some time to shake off the rust, but his raw stuff projects to miss bats better than he has so far and with a full, healthy offseason he could be looking at a tremendous breakout in 2024.
Luis De Avila joined Winans and Smith-Shawver in receiving a first place vote, and it’s easy to see why given his performance in Mississippi. In July De Avila had two straight outings in which he didn’t allow a hit, and four times this season allowed one or fewer hits across five or more innings. De Avila posted a 3.28 ERA across 123 1⁄3 Double-A innings, finishing second for the Southern League ERA title.
2022 first round pick Owen Murphy lived up to the hype in his first professional season, leading all players with 60 or more innings in K-BB% and putting up a 3.66 FIP. Murphy ranked just percentage points behind Texas’s Mitch Bratt among all teenagers in K-BB%, and he and teammate Jhancarlos Lara finished the season on an entertaining run as they both ranked high in every rate stat. Over his final 11 outings Murphy struck out 32.4% of batters faced, put up a 25.7% K-BB%, and earned a three game call up to Rome.