Last year, Braves rookies finished first and second in National League Rookie of the Year voting. At the beginning of the season, no one saw that coming.
Which prospects could impact the 2023 Braves?
The picture seems clearer than a year ago – though, of course, certain developments often surprise us. This spring, we have received a long look at multiple prospects who could help the Braves accomplish their goals this season.
Let’s look at all of them (in no particular order):
SS Vaughn Grissom
Over the offseason, the Braves revealed that Grissom, their young infielder, would spend three separate weeks with infield guru Ron Washington to hone his defense. At the time, Dansby Swanson was a free agent, but the outcome seemed inevitable.
Swanson probably would be leaving. The Braves would have a hole at shortstop.
“The only thing I can do for you guys is just play my game, and if you guys like it, I’m sure I’ll hear about it, and if you guys don’t, I’m sure I’ll hear about it,” Grissom said at Braves Fest in January. “To me, it doesn’t matter either way because I’m just going to go play my game. I’m not trying to go fill nobody’s shoes or do anything different. I’m just gonna go play Vaughn Grissom’s ball.”
By now, you know what happened: Grissom reported to North Port and played well. However, the Braves eventually optioned him, opting for Orlando Arcia as their starting shortstop. Barring anything unforeseen, Grissom will begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett. (For the sake of this article, we’ll call him a “prospect,” even if he already debuted.)
In Grapefruit League games, Grissom hit .371 with an .829 OPS over 35 at-bats. He struck out only four times. His defense seemed fine. He was probably good enough to make the team had the Braves not felt so confident in Arcia.
But now Grissom can compile innings at shortstop in Gwinnett. He can continue swinging a hot bat while improving in the field.
Grissom learned a lot while working with Washington.
“I almost didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Grissom said in February. “There’s so many things I just haven’t heard or been taught yet – which is like a lot of people, sometimes you just don’t have that information available. I feel better than I ever have fielding ground balls these days.”
At the time, he felt grateful for the Braves fans who believed in him if the team were to make him its starting shortstop.
“Atlanta, they really took me in – it feels like they took me in,” Grissom said. “I have a lot of support. A lot of people are behind me, kind of rooting for me. It feels great. Just trying to keep proving them right.”
LHP Jared Shuster
On a weekday last March, Shuster started a game versus the Rays. Remember: This was minor-league camp – MLB had not yet lifted its lockout.
The lockout ended on the same day Shuster threw versus the Rays.
A year later, he found himself in the middle of the Braves’ fifth-starter competition with fellow lefty Dylan Dodd. (We’ll discuss Dodd soon.)
“Just trying to be as present as possible,” Shuster recently said. “Just stick to my routines and keep doing what I’ve been doing. Not try to think about the outcome and think about what you can do to help the outcome rather than the outcome itself.”
Here’s the funny part about all of this: Regardless of who first occupies the fifth spot in the starting rotation, Shuster and Dodd should both have an opportunity to pitch in Atlanta this season. If not counting the Braves using Jesse Chavez as an opener, the Braves used 11 starting pitchers last year.
There will be opportunities.
Last spring, Shuster probably had the best change-up in the Braves’ system. He has since worked on his slider a lot. Shuster usually will sit at 92-94 mph with his fastball.
This spring, the 24-year-old Shuster has received his biggest taste of the big leagues by spending time around the Braves’ rotation members.
“Just seeing what they do to get ready and what their process is like on a day-to-day basis to get themselves ready for start day has been really cool to experience, and I’ve learned a lot,” Shuster said.
Shuster pitched at Double-A Mississippi and at Gwinnett last season. Now, he’s on the cusp of the majors.
SS Braden Shewmake
When Shewmake arrived in camp, hitting coach Kevin Seitzer noticed that Shewmake seemed different. He featured a new swing and approach.
Seitzer asked Shewmake about the changes, and learned that they came from a conversation Shewmake had with his father, a college coach, over the offseason. Shewmake and his dad talked about the shortstop reverting back to how he hit in college, when he sprayed the ball everywhere.
So instead of looking to pull the ball, Shewmake began focusing more on staying in the middle of the field and hitting the ball the other way.
The changes worked.
Are they something Shewmake can use to keep improving going forward?
“For sure,” Seitzer said. “I don’t know if he’s going to hit like he’s hit this spring because he’s had a great spring, but he’s gonna give himself a chance now.”
Before the Braves optioned him, Shewmake hit .323 with an .823 OPS over 31 at-bats.
Shewmake always has faced this question: Could he hit enough to be an everyday shortstop? He started answering it this spring, and now the Braves want to see if his improvement is real based on what he does at Triple-A.
Here’s the interesting part: Last season, Grissom jumped Shewmake, who was hurt when the Braves needed an infielder and called up Grissom out of necessity. Well, now that both are headed to Triple-A – instead of Grissom winning the Braves’ starting shortstop job – they’re on even footing more than they were at the start of camp.
Asked recently what he saw from Grissom and Shewmake during spring training, Washington, the Braves’ third base coach and infield coach, said: “Great process. When you’re in the process and you’re working, especially at the major-league level, it’s about consistency. It’s not about the results, it’s about consistency. And I saw both of them grow. And they’re gonna continue to grow. There was never any doubt that they had some growth coming, and this year, we’ve seen.”
LHP Dylan Dodd
Something we’ve repeatedly heard about Dodd and Shuster this spring: They throw strikes. These kids pound the zone.
In Dodd’s case, he had no choice.
“I’ve had to be a strike-thrower kind of my whole life because I didn’t always have the best stuff, especially growing up when I wasn’t throwing very hard or I was always kind of undersized and stuff,” Dodd said recently. “So if I didn’t throw strikes, and I started walking guys, I was gonna give up hits anyways, so it was very important that I didn’t give up any more free base runners. So that’s always been something that I’ve kind of taken pride in and continued with throughout my career.”
During his two community-college seasons, Dodd threw 88 mph. He eventually topped out at 95 mph in his final season at Southeast Missouri State.
The 24-year-old Dodd throws a four-seam fastball, change-up and slider. He said the fastball is possibly his best pitch, but added that it depends on the day. It can be the change-up, too.
Since the Braves drafted him in the third round in 2021, Dodd has enjoyed learning more about analytics. Certain metrics have helped him evaluate his pitches.
“I’m still new to it because in college, I didn’t have access to really any of that,” said Dodd, who went to Southeast Missouri State. “It’s been a little bit of a transition, kind of just learning the language of it, so to speak.”
Dodd began last season at High-A Rome and finished at Gwinnett. Like Shuster, he is close to debuting and could have a major impact for the Braves this season.
Entering spring training, it seemed the Braves would get a look at Dodd before eventually sending him down.
Eventually, he pitched too well for the Braves to option him. They sent down Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder, leaving Dodd and Shuster in big-league camp.
RHP Darius Vines
As was mentioned before, the Braves will need a lot of arms to get through 2023. A long baseball season requires clubs to be flexible.
It appears Darius Vines is one of the organization’s most MLB-ready prospects.
In 2022, Vines posted a 3.95 ERA over 20 starts (107 innings) at Double-A. The Braves then promoted him to Triple-A, where he pitched to a 3.21 ERA over 33 2/3 innings. At Double-A, he struck out 127 batters while issuing 30 walks.
Vines pitched in two big-league spring training games before the club optioned him. Over three innings, he didn’t allow a run. He struck out three batters and didn’t walk any.
The Braves drafted Vines in the seventh round in 2019 out of Cal State-Bakersfield. He has had two full seasons in the minors, and could be in line for a call-up at some point.
One factor that could help Vines: He’s already on the 40-man roster, so the Braves wouldn’t need to make a move to put him on there.
RHP Victor Vodnik
Victor Vodnik hit 99 mph during a Grapefruit League game earlier in camp.
“That’s cool,” he said in the days after. “I didn’t really realize that I was throwing that hard.”
Then he added this: He’s hit 100 mph before.
In 2022, Vodnik pitched at Double-A and Triple-A. In 24 relief appearances at Gwinnett, he posted a 2.93 ERA over 27-2/3 innings. He struck out 33 batters, but walked 16.
This spring, Vodnik allowed eight runs over 4-2/3 innings in Grapefruit League action before the Braves optioned him.
The Braves have good bullpen depth, but teams go through tons of arms during the season. Perhaps Vodnik, drafted in the 14th round in 2018, out of high school receives the call at some point.
Unlike Vines, Vodnik is not on the 40-man roster.