When franchise icon Freddie Freeman left the Atlanta Braves in free agency following their 2021 World Series run, the team was left with more than just a new first baseman: they also got a compensation pick in the 2022 MLB draft. That pick turned into a product from Braves country in Auburn relief pitcher Blake Burkhalter.
Draft Report Card
Burkhalter was one of the nation’s most impressive relief pitchers in 2022, posting gaudy peripherals primarily in the closer role for the Auburn Tigers. In 46 1⁄3 innings, Burkhalter struck out 71 batters while walking only seven. His biggest weakness was his nine home runs allowed. He came by his numbers honestly with a mid-to-upper-90s fastball with carry, and a dominant cutter that made him one of the draft’s top relief prospects. Still, taking him at 76th overall was seen as a bit of a reach and it came due to the confidence of Dana Brown and his staff in Burkhalter’s potential.
What we saw in 2022
Burkhalter has all of the hallmarks of pure relief prospect. He’s undersized at 6’0”, never made a single start in his college career, and primarily works with a two-pitch mix. The Braves, however, have not been afraid to take reliever-ish arms with the belief they can develop them into starting pitching regardless of conventional wisdom. So far, that philosophy has produced rookie star Spencer Strider, and the Braves feel that Burkhalter can follow a similar path in his professional career. In his very brief foray into professional baseball, Burkhalter made one of his three appearances as a starter and was quite dominant with three perfect innings and six strikeouts. That is, however, a one-start sample and A-ball lineups, especially late in the year, are lower quality than many of the lineups he faced in the SEC.
Burkhalter will be one of the earlier points of intrigue in the Braves system simply because of the unique approach the organization is taking with his development. It is rare to see a team move a long-time reliever into a starting role, but the Braves think he can flourish in that spot. Stretching Burkhalter’s arm out to a starter’s workload will stress the effectiveness of his pure stuff, so glances at his velocity throughout the season will be important to understand how his stuff plays in longer stints. Of more importance, he is control over command right now, and will need to locate his pitches more effectively in order to avoid the home run troubles that plagued him in 2022.