First impression: The young man from Etowah does not lack for confidence. He is to self-assuredness what Elton John is to plumage.
Same for the second and third impression, too.
Today, you'll find Waters ranked among the top 40 prospects in baseball by all your major publications that somehow make a living doing that. He's right there behind the Braves' other hotshot young outfielder, Cristian Pache. In a poll of execs by MLB Pipeline, Waters was named the most underrated prospect in the game. Just 21, he is on a fast track that mightn't land him in Atlanta quite yet this season. His start to this spring training has not been pretty — through Friday he was 1-for-11 (.091) at the plate with eight strikeouts. Still, this is not the kind of young man you casually tell to take a number and wait his turn.
The one-time National League MVP who a couple of years ago hadn’t known Drew Waters from Muddy Waters is now one of the kid’s biggest advocates. Pendleton’s job takes him on a regular loop of the Braves’ minor league camps, where he builds bridges with a number of the team’s young players. To see him roam the back fields here from morning to mid-afternoon happily in the mix with these unproven, unformed pros is confirmation of just how much Pendleton has embraced this mentorship thing.
He and Waters forged an almost immediate bond, one that extends beyond usual work hours. “I’ll get some texts during the winter, I’ll get some videos during the winter when he’s working on his offense,” Pendleton said. “We stay in touch. My wife already has claimed him as one of ours — (saying) ‘Oh, what’s my son doing now?’”
After one year of working with Waters, Pendleton found himself going back to the Braves hitting coach and revisiting that first conversation they had about one teenaged draftee. “I walked over to Seitz and said, ‘This kid wasn’t lying. Everything he told you he’s attempting to do,’ ” Pendleton recalled.
“He’s a special kid. He needs a little extra attention at times, but he means well. He’s become a really good teammate; he has become a good ballplayer and the world is going to get to see it soon. That’s the type of talent he has.” That from a 15-year major-leaguer who just might know a little something about what it takes to both break through and then stick around for a while at that level.
Braves outfielders Shane Robinson (from left), Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Rafael Ortega, and Trey Harris get is some work in the outfield during spring training Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla.
Credit: Curtis Compton
Credit: Curtis Compton
Just watching Waters navigate his second big-league spring camp is a study in undisguised ambition. The way he carries himself, with the comfortable saunter of someone who believes down to his DNA that he belongs here, is almost reason enough to promote him. Dressing on that side of the room opposite where the established major-leaguers reside, Waters leaves little doubt he intends to move over to the high-rent district very soon.
Doubt? He does not do doubt.
“No,” Waters said when asked if he ever has suffered from that affliction.
“Ever since I got drafted it’s been one of those things I signed up for. I was going to give it 100%; I was going to go full pedal-to-the-metal. That’s kind of what I’ve done. When you start playing with doubt, you start to struggle because you’re starting to think about that elephant in the room. It’s hard when you’re doubting yourself to not think about that doubt during the game. I really haven’t doubted myself too much since starting pro ball and I don’t think I’ll start doing it now.”
Consider the whip-smart answer Waters gave to a question about his perceived swagger from back at the Braves Chop Fest in January.
Some confidence is so much empty calories. But in Waters’ case, he states a convincing case for the absolute need to strut.
He may be young. He may know nothing of life in the bigs. Still, Waters runs deep:
“We play one of the hardest games in the world. We have guys throwing 100 miles an hour at us. We’ve got guys like Ronald Acuna, Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich. If you think that I’m going to be able to go out there and compete with those guys and not be confident in my ability, you’re crazy. Because if I’m not out there confident, knowing or thinking to myself that, ‘OK, I’m the man on this field,’ then I’m going to start playing defensively, or I might just kind of get caught up in the moment.
“But when you take that cocky swagger out on the field with you, it almost makes you feel like you’re in control. And when you’re in control, you’re the one driving the car.”
At the start of spring last year, Pendleton said, the Braves believed they’d be sending Waters back to the Single-A Florida State League. But he showed enough that he began the year in Double-A Mississippi.
There, he hit .319 in 108 games, with an .847 OPS and was named the Southern League MVP. He had 35 doubles and nine triples to go with five home runs (did we mention he was fast?).
Promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett, he met some stern opposition from the pitching there. Down went the average (.271 in 26 games). Up went the strikeouts (43 in 119 plate appearances).
“I got humbled a little bit at Triple-A, but it was good,” he said. “It allowed me to really evaluate my game and see what I needed to work on and take that into the offseason and show up ready for camp this season.”
The Braves drafted Drew Waters, an outfielder at Etowah High School, with the team’s second-round pick in 2017.
Credit: Henry P. Taylor
Credit: Henry P. Taylor
Pendleton raves about Waters’ work habits — he’s continually adding a few pounds of muscle to his frame — which explains why the two continue to get along so well. Pendleton is proudly old school. He’s not going to waste his time on any hotshot who feels entitled to a nameplate in a major league clubhouse.
“I tell people he has a little Chipper Jones in him,” Pendleton said. “What I mean by that, people thought the first time they met Chipper, who is this cocky dude? No, no no. That’s cocky confident. There’s a difference. Drew carries that, he carries cocky confidence. Here’s a guy who knows what he wants to do and how he wants to get it done.”
Such a comparison feeds a hungry young ballplayer.
Especially one who grew up in the Braves’ sphere of influence and thus fell under Jones’ spell. An aspiring switch-hitter, Waters was powerless to resist.
“Just getting to watch (Jones), watch what he does and how he was able to do it from both sides of the plate, I don’t think there’s anybody better to watch,” Waters said.
“He’s definitely a guy I’d like to kind of model myself after to really pay attention to because he’s done it and he’s done it at the highest level.
“He is a Hall of Famer and at the end of the day that’s kind of my goal, to be a Hall of Famer and help the Atlanta Braves win, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Never let it be said he aims low. Waters naturally will seek his own level.