It is the moment you have all been waiting for, as it’s time to finish out Battery Power’s list of the top 25 Atlanta Braves preseason prospects. As always it has been incredible to see the response to these articles, and we’ve had a blast putting this all together. If you haven’t read up to this point, you should really take a minute to look at the first five parts to this series.
- Battery Power 2022 Preseason Top 25 prospects: Honorable Mentions
- Battery Power 2022 Preseason Top 25 prospects: 21-25
- Battery Power 2022 Preseason Top 25 prospects: 16-20
- Battery Power 2022 Preseason Top 25 prospects: 11-15
- Battery Power 2022 Preseason Top 25 prospects: 6-10
Before we jump in, I (Garrett) would like to say a few thank yous. This has been my first list since taking over as the site’s minor league editor, and I am extremely excited to lead the next era of prospecting at Battery Power. I was fortunate to have Eric Cole to guide me over the prior seven years, and to have a fantastic staff in place already to put this list together. Matt Powers has been our draft expert here for years, Brady Petree has recently joined the staff, and Gaurav Vedak was able to provide support off the bench even though he is no longer a full time contributor. This list would not have happened without all of their help, and I am thankful to have them all. I am also thankful for the support we receive from you all, because without it we would not have had the chance to build this staff and community the way we have.
So finally, we cap off our prospect list with the top 5 Atlanta Braves prospects.
5. Cole Phillips - RHP
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: 2022 draft, 2nd round
Cole Phillips wasn’t the first pitcher the Braves took in the draft last season, but he may actually have the highest upside. Had he not gone down with an elbow injury that spring, he was looking like a strong possibility to go in the first round following a breakout start to his senior year and real buzz about him. Of course the need for Tommy John surgery would cost him the rest of the season and that first round chance, but the upside is still there for Phillips.
The 6’3, 200-pound right hander brings a double plus fastball, a promising and potentially plus slider, and an average changeup to go with solid feel for his command. He had seen a bit of a jump in his velocity last year before the injury, and there is still some projection remaining, so it isn’t too hard to see that upper 90’s fastball getting closer to 100 MPH in the future.
Phillips started throwing again just after the Braves season ended, though it was just playing catch off flat ground, a normal first step in these surgeries. He should be ready to pitch at some point in the 2023 season, and likely ends up in either the FCL or Augusta, depending on when he’s ready to make his pro debut. The potential is a top of the rotation type of starter with a pair of plus pitches and a solid third pitch, plus solid command, so he is a player who should be watched closely once he’s ready to return.
4. JR Ritchie - RHP
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: 2022 draft, Compensation round A
A highly acclaimed pick by the Battery Power staff, JR Ritchie burst into the scene in 2020-21 when he was the state of Washington’s baseball player of the year where he compiled a 6-0 record and 0.38 ERA. Ritchie committed to UCLA before eventually being drafted and signed with the Braves. Despite his age, the potential is there seen by his No. 4 ranking despite just five games of professional experience. Ritchie has a four pitch mix, with all four offerings being average to plus ALREADY. Ritchie’s fastball is his calling card as he sits in the mid-90s and can touch up to 99, though he is not currently able to maintain that velocity for more than a couple of innings. In five starts after being drafted, Ritchie had a 1.88 ERA, 0.977 WHIP and featured a 8.8 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9.
2023 will be an interesting year for Ritchie as it is his first full season in professional ball, but will still come in with plenty of hype. Our very own Garrett Spain had a great writeup on some of the changes that he could see right here. For those of you keeping an eye out for him this year, make sure to watch him pitch against looking at the box score because he is a young arm with monster potential, but as Garrett details there are some changes that may benefit his long term future. Ritchie currently projects as a MOR arm with even more upside.
3. Jared Shuster - LHP
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: 2020 draft, 1st round (24th overall)
Making the leap from No. 14 on this list a year ago, 2021 first rounder Jared Shuster comes in at No. 3 on our list for the upcoming season. While some trades and graduations from the list helped boost Shuster up the ladder to his current slot, the 2022 season was also a much-needed step forward for the lefty in terms of reaching his full potential. Shuster spent most of the 2022 campaign with Mississippi but managed to get the nod up to Gwinnett after posting a 2.78 ERA in 17 appearances. Shuster put up perhaps his best stretch in his pro career in July where across three Double A outings, the 24-year-old lefty allowed just one run over 19 innings while recording 24 strikeouts and just three walks.
Shuster got the call to Gwinnett shortly after that dominant stretch at Mississippi and things took a turn in the opposite direction. In 10 appearances (9 starts), Shuster posted a 4.25 ERA while striking out 39 and walking 16 in 48 2/3 innings. While those numbers aren’t exactly encouraging nor discouraging, Shuster struggled with the long ball, giving up 10 homers during his brief stint at Triple-A. In his brief professional career, Shuster is allowing an average of 1.4 homers per nine innings.
Shuster’s changeup continues to be his best pitch, if not the best pitch in the entire system, and his fastball and slider took a significant step forward in 2022 as well. With the likes of Bryce Elder graduating and former starting prospects such as Kyle Muller and Ryan Cusick being traded, Shuster now stands as the most major league-ready starter prospect in the Braves farm. Shuster’s floor continues to be that of a solid LHRP with his ceiling being that of a middle of the rotation starter.
2023 will be an important year for Shuster as the fifth spot in the Braves rotation is seemingly up for grabs for the near future. If Shuster can show a more consistent use of his fastball to allow his changeup and slider to play off it, while continuing to work on limiting the ball leaving the yard, he could see Truist Park sooner rather than later and make an impact in what figures to be one of the best rotations in baseball.
2. Owen Murphy - RHP
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: 2022 draft, 1st round (20th overall)
The Braves surprised a lot of people with their first pick in the 2022 MLB Draft by taking Owen Murphy simply because the Braves hadn’t taken a high school player, let alone a prep right-handed pitcher, in the first round since Carter Stewart. Murphy may have surprised some, but the talent was clearly there for the 6’1”, 190-pound right hander out of Illinois. Not just as a pitcher either, as he was actually a Day 2 prospect as a power hitting third baseman if he was being taken solely as a bat.
Murphy is the kind of prospect that fits what the Braves like. He’s solid across the board without any real major area for concern in terms of his tool profile. He brings four pitches, a fastball, curve, slider, and changeup that all rate as average or better, and has above-average command. Add that to a multi-sport background, high marks for analytics, athleticism for a pitcher, and high marks for character and you’ve got the type of pitcher the Braves like to work with.
The biggest and really only knock against him is that he isn’t very projectable, as his frame looks close to finished filling out already. However there is the hope that he could see gains as he gives up hitting, in addition to being a cold weather arm give some reasons to hope for some gains to his pitching. Murphy brings middle of the rotation upside with a higher floor than most prep right handers. He will likely be ticketed for Augusta to open the season, and his big league ETA probably feels like 2026.
1.AJ Smith-Shawver - RHP
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: 2021 draft, 7th round
AJ Smith-Shawver is the new man at the top of the Atlanta Braves system, and at 20 years and 68 days old, he is the youngest player Battery Power has ranked No. 1 since Ronald Acuna Jr. in 2018. Smith-Shawver was a superb two-sport star at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas and the Braves wanted him so strongly they gave him a $1,000,000 signing bonus in the seventh round in 2021. Smith-Shawver was expected to be an uber-talented project arm due to his lack of experience and he showed that in his professional debut in 2021 with 10 walks in 8 1⁄3 innings. When Smith-Shawver was named to Augusta’s opening day roster for 2022 we had tempered our expectations for him, but he blew us away in every facet of his game. The numbers don’t all immediately jump off of the page for Smith-Shawver with a 5.11 ERA and 13% walk rate, but among teenagers, he was one of the top strikeout arms in the minor leagues. Smith-Shawver posted an impressive 34.4% strikeout rate and his FIP sat at 3.53 on the season. His peak was a May 10th start in Augusta where he pitched five innings and struck out a career-high 12 of the 21 batters he faced. Unfortunately Smith-Shawver suffered an injury in his start on August 5th and did not return to action with no further word being passed around as to the nature of the injury.
It would be easier to place Smith-Shawver at the top of this list had he not suffered that mysterious injury, but missing the final month of the season did cause a bit more pause on our parts. That said, he has the top combination of raw talent and present performance in the system which gave him the edge for the top spot. Smith-Shawver’s fastball sits consistently in the mid-90’s and has been clocked as high as 99 mph with tremendous spin and movement up in the zone. Impressively, he commanded the pitch far better than expected, especially in the top half of the zone, though he did tend to lose command as he tired late in starts. He also showed a wipeout slider that had Single-A hitters befuddled and left them overwhelmed in many at-bats. Smith-Shawver also showed a better changeup than expected, as it had great fading action and a solid velocity gap to his fastball though his command was wildly inconsistent.
Smith-Shawver’s biggest weakness in 2022 was his ability to maintain his command from early innings past the third inning as the second time through the order he would start walking more batters and working deeper into counts. Even in early innings, his command was below average, but he has already made tremendous strides. Given that he is arguably the best pure athlete in the system, there is reason to believe he will continue to improve. Smith-Shawver’s health is of course the primary focus at the moment, but we haven’t gotten any word of any serious injuries or surgeries which is likely a good sign. Overall he has top-of-the-rotation potential and showed professional success as a teenager which made him the primary candidate for the top spot even before recent trades. His arm talent blows anyone who watches him pitch away, and when looking deeper past his numbers, it is clear he is a player whose maturity and development is beyond his years. He still may not be a player who cruises through the system given his command and stamina issues last season, but the future is bright for Smith-Shawver and the Braves.