Max Fried dominant again, now Braves prospect Spencer Schwellenbach set for MLB debut (2024)

ATLANTA — Spencer Schwellenbach threw a between-starts bullpen session Monday at the Gwinnett Stripers’ ballpark just north of Atlanta, and the Braves prospect was ready to fly with the team to make his Triple-A debut with a start against Norfolk.

That’s when a Braves official informed him of a change of plans.

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You’re not going to Norfolk, kid. You’re headed to The Show, to make your big-league debut Wednesday with a start for the Braves against the Washington Nationals.

“I was packed up and ready to go to Virginia, and they called me in and told me,” Schwellenbach said. “I was shocked.”

Shocked but thrilled. And ready, said Schwellenbach, who will make his MLB debut two days before his 24th birthday. The Braves thought he was prepared mentally and physically, and so does he.

“Oh, yeah,” the right-hander said. “When I had Tommy John in 2021, I had a lot of time to sit and think. No more thinking anymore.”

Spencer Schwellenbach is here. He was in Gwinnett to throw a bullpen, expecting to make a start there, when the #Braves informed him he would instead be starting for the big-league team.

— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) May 28, 2024

A second-round draft pick out of the University of Nebraska in 2021, Schwellenbach missed all of the 2022 season following TJ surgery and has made just 24 minor-league starts, including two above High A. He will start Wednesday after allowing only five hits and one walk with 17 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings of his two starts for Double-A Mississippi.

The keys to his recent success?

“Just pounding the zone, throwing strikes, getting on top of guys early and just being able to put them away when I get to two strikes,” he said.

Two weeks after being promoted from High-A Rome to Double A, he’s been promoted to the majors without a stint in Triple A.

“Look at his numbers, they’re really, really good,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who hasn’t seen Schwellenbach pitch in person but has watched video and talked to Braves officials and minor-league coaches about him. “They said he’s a strike thrower. I know he’s an athlete — he was a really good position player, too, at Nebraska.

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“He’s a college guy that’s gotten results. I mean, it’s kind of attractive when you get guys out. That’s the way you get noticed.”

It’s already been a frenetic week for Schwellenbach and his fiancée, Shelby, who traveled to Columbia, Mo., for the Saturday wedding of his brother, Mason. Schwellenbach flew to Atlanta to join the Gwinnett team, while Shelby drove back to Pearl, Miss., to get their belongings and drive to Gwinnett to join him.

She was driving to Gwinnett when Schwellenbach called Monday with the change of plans. She was the first person he called after being told he would make his MLB debut.

“She’s so excited,” Schwellenbach said, smiling. “When I called her and she was on her way, it was like all the madness (of the week) was just gone.”

Shelby will be at the game Wednesday along with her parents, Schwellenbach’s parents, his other brother, Jordan, and his sister, Taylor. Mason and his wife are in Jamaica on their honeymoon, so they won’t be able to make the game.

Schwellenbach said he hadn’t thought being promoted to the majors this soon was even possible until Monday.

“I wasn’t thinking about it,” he said. “I was just trying to do my thing, come out every day and do what I’m asked to.”

But as he stood at his new locker in the Braves’ clubhouse Tuesday at Truist Park, a few feet away from Michael Harris II’s locker — he knows Harris from playing golf together and having mutual friends — Schwellenbach said it felt “awesome.”

“I think when I wake up (Wednesday), it’s really going to set in,” he said. “I’m just excited to get out there.”

A native of Saginaw, Mich., Schwellenbach was a good shortstop at Nebraska and later added closing duties there. The Braves drafted him strictly as a pitcher and in the past two years have seen him develop his cutter, slider, curveball and changeup to complement a 96-98 mph fastball that he throws with pinpoint command. Since his promotion to Double A, he said he’s used his secondary pitches more than ever.

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He was ranked No. 2 among Braves prospects entering the season by The Athletic’s Keith Law, who had him behind Hurston Waldrep and ahead of AJ Smith-Shawver.

After posting a 2.49 ERA in 16 starts at the Single-A and High-A levels in 2023, with 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 65 innings, Schwellenbach has a 1.80 ERA in eight starts this season in High A and Double A, with 51 strikeouts, 10 walks and one homer allowed in 45 innings.

The Braves love that he keeps the ball on the ground, racking up strikeouts and groundouts. They’re promoting him a little sooner than expected because he’s advanced quickly in his development and because they have a need.

With Spencer Strider out after season-ending elbow surgery two starts into the season, the Braves are relying heavily on Chris Sale and Reynaldo López, who’ve pitched brilliantly and will keep getting extra rest as the Braves try to keep them healthy, and Max Fried, who was splendid again Tuesday in a 2-0 win against the Nationals, pitching eight innings with seven hits, one walk and six strikeouts. He’s had scoreless outings in four of his past seven starts and allowed one run in 17 innings over his past two.

Braves starters are 19-12 with a 3.49 ERA that ranks third in the majors behind the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs. Atlanta’s first three starters have been as good as any in baseball — Sale is 8-1 with a 2.12 ERA in 10 starts and a likely NL Pitcher of the Month for May. López has a 1.75 ERA in nine starts. And Fried has a 1.75 ERA in the past nine of his 11 starts.

Charlie Morton, the 40-year-old fourth starter, has a 4.29 ERA after allowing eight earned runs and 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings of Monday’s loss to the Nationals, the first time since 2015 that he allowed that many runs in a game.

The back end of the rotation has been a carousel, and the only one of the five pitchers Atlanta has used for 10 starts in that role who has an ERA below 4.66 is Smith-Shawver, who went on the injured list with a strained oblique after pitching 4 1/3 scoreless innings in his season debut Thursday against the Chicago Cubs.

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The Braves will keep using different pitchers with minor-league options to fill the final spot in the rotation or serve as a de facto sixth starter to provide extra rest for the rotation regulars, especially now that there aren’t as many off days in the schedule as there were earlier, or as many likely weather postponements. If Schwellenbach shines, it would ensure he’ll get more opportunities soon.

There had been speculation that Waldrep, who’s been at Double-A Mississippi all season, would be the next Braves pitching prospect to make his MLB debut. But he’s two years younger than Schwellenbach and has made even fewer minor-league starts — 17 for Waldrep.

Waldrep has a 3.28 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in nine Double-A starts this season. But much like Fried, Waldrep’s statistics were skewed by his rocky first two starts when he gave up 10 earned runs in seven innings. In his past seven starts, Waldrep has a 1.28 ERA with 41 strikeouts, 12 walks and no homers allowed in 42 1/3 innings.

Yes, it seems likely he’ll be coming soon, too.

“We’re going to continue to do anything we can to mix and match things, and guys are going to get opportunities,” Snitker said. “When you get to Double A, it starts to be real there. And you have numbers like (Schwellenbach) did, you get noticed.”

Offensive malaise continues

The sputtering Braves offense, after hitting .224 and averaging 3.4 runs during a 27-game stretch before Tuesday, was limited to two hits in six scoreless innings by Washington’s Jake Irvin. He had 10 strikeouts, four above his previous season high.

Fortunately for the Braves, designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, their only consistent offensive performer and power threat, hit his NL-leading 16th homer in the seventh off reliever Jacob Barnes. Jarred Kelenic added a sacrifice fly in the inning after singles from Matt Olson and Sean Murphy, in Murphy’s second game following a two-month IL stint for a strained oblique.

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“This is just part of the job, try and keep everybody in a positive mindset, keep the panic out and keep the focus where it needs to be and stay controlled within yourself,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said.

The team’s hitting woes included nine double-digit strikeout totals in the past 13 games and MLB’s fourth-lowest on-base percentage (.288) over the past 30 days.

“When guys are scuffling, they start chasing results. Can’t do that,” Seitzer said. “Just got to focus on a quality at-bat every time you step in the box, and whatever you can control, control. Once the ball leaves the barrel, it’s like, now we’ll see. But you can’t go chasing results.”

(Photo of Max Fried: Brett Davis / USA Today)

Max Fried dominant again, now Braves prospect Spencer Schwellenbach set for MLB debut (1)Max Fried dominant again, now Braves prospect Spencer Schwellenbach set for MLB debut (2)

David O'Brien is a senior writer covering the Atlanta Braves for The Athletic. He previously covered the Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and covered the Marlins for eight seasons, including the 1997 World Series championship. He is a two-time winner of the NSMA Georgia Sportswriter of the Year award. Follow David on Twitter @DOBrienATL

Max Fried dominant again, now Braves prospect Spencer Schwellenbach set for MLB debut (2024)
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