Spencer Schwellenbach’s solid Braves debut is good sign for now and future

Team needs more pitching prospects to pan out
Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach (56) delivers to a Washington Nationals batter. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach (56) delivers to a Washington Nationals batter. (Jason Getz / AJC)

The auditions for a fifth starter are about more than just that for the Braves. The immediate need is a rotation replacement for Spencer Strider. The Braves also need their young pitchers to show enough promise that they can be serious candidates to be part of the 2025 rotation.

Spencer Schwellenbach is the latest to get his shot. He skipped Triple-A to make his big-league debut against the Nationals on Wednesday. Schwellenbach quickly learned what it’s like to start for the perplexingly light-hitting Braves. Nowadays Braves pitchers need to be great for the team to have a chance to win.

Schwellenbach wasn’t good enough. The Nationals tallied three runs over five innings against him. They didn’t need any more to beat the Braves, 7-2, at Truist Park.

“I thought I threw OK,” Schwellenbach said. “Obviously, I’m really hard on myself.”

Schwellenbach was better than OK. He was poised while throwing a lot of strikes (60 out of 88 pitches). His fastballs averaged 95.9 mph. The Nationals whiffed on 11 of 45 swings against Schwellenbach’s pitches, including four times on eight curveballs. His pitch mix included 30 fastballs, 22 curveballs, 17 sliders, 14 cut fastballs and five changeups.

“He was able to throw strikes with all of them, too,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “Get chased with all of his off-speed and his ‘heater’ too. He’s got a lot of good things going for him and I’m excited to see what else he can do.”

It’s not clear when Schwellenbach will get his next chance with the big-league Braves. Manager Brian Snitker said he was impressed with Schwellenbach’s debut but was noncommittal about whether he’d get another turn in the rotation.

Schwellenbach, 23, is the sixth pitcher to get a chance to be the No. 5 starter since Strider went on the injured list. Three pitchers had one-and-done auditions. AJ Smith-Shawver suffered an injury and Ray Kerr and Allan Winans didn’t show enough (Kerr is scheduled to start Thursday so that converted reliever Reynaldo Lopez can get an extra day of rest). Darius Vines made two starts before going back to Triple-A Gwinnett and Bryce Elder lasted for five starts.

Schwellenbach didn’t allow a run through four innings against the Nationals. He didn’t get rattled when Adam Duvall mishandled Luis Garcia’s lead-off single in the second for a two-base error. Schwellenbach stayed focused after hitting Jacob Young with a pitch to the head in the fifth inning. Schwellenbach said it was “scary” to see Young stay on the ground for several moments before getting up, but teammates and coaches helped him settle down before he struck out the next batter.

Washington Nationals' Jacob Young (30) gets up after being hit while at bat in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Wednesday, May 29, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Hitting Young with a pitch was among the three mistakes by Schwellenbach that contributed to the three runs allowed. No. 8 hitter Joey Gallo smacked a cut fastball down the middle for a lead-off double. With one out, Lane Thomas yanked a waist-high fastball for a three-run homer.

“It was supposed to be an outside ‘heater’ and I just left it right out in the middle for him,” Schwellenbach said.

I’d say Schwellenbach showed enough to get another start, at least until Smith-Shawver returns from an oblique injury. But who can say for sure with the way the Braves are cycling through pitchers? They are searching for pitching depth after recent drafts and trades for young pitchers haven’t produced many reliable starters.

The Braves hired Alex Anthopoulos as general manager in November 2017. The team selected 51 pitchers in the draft from 2018 through 2021 and traded for three pitching prospects during that time. Among those 54 pitchers, 11 have made it to the big leagues (Carter Stewart, the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2018, declined to sign with the Braves). Seven have stayed in the majors a while, including Strider and Elder.

Strider is already a high-level starter. Elder was an All-Star in 2023 but is back in the minors now. That’s not a lot of production from the Braves out of those 52 prospects. They need more of them to pan out and fill the rotation. Veterans Chris Sale and Charlie Morton are in the twilight of their careers and Max Fried is set to become a free agent next winter.

Schwellenbach and Smith-Shawver are considered among the best pitching prospects in the Braves’ organization. Smith-Shawver has 3.64 ERA in six appearances with three starts. If Schwellenbach doesn’t stick (or if there’s another injury to a starter) then there’s a good chance Hurston Waldrep, 22, is next up. His 2.92 ERA was 12th-best in the Double-A Southern League entering Wednesday.

Waldrep has had a great run of results since two rough outings to begin the season. That’s why it seemed he would get the call next. Instead, the Braves turned to Schwellenbach. He was good in his debut. Schwellenbach just wasn’t good enough to win because the Braves still aren’t scoring enough.