With the 2021 MLB Draft just around the corner, there is a lot of buzz as to how this pitcher-rich and shortstop-rich draft will play out in the first round. For the Atlanta Braves, they will have to be patient for their turn to select the future, as they currently hold the 24th pick. When the Braves’ time comes, there should be little objection to the notion that the club should select pitcher Gavin Williams out of East Carolina University.
There have been several liabilities and concerns within the Braves’ roster that this season has shed light on. Some say shortstop could be an area to address, while others say the outfield, outside of, obviously, Ronald Acuna Jr. But the one deficient area that the season illuminated more than others has been pitching. Inadequate pitching has contributed to this team’s devolvement into a sub .500 disappointment. Both the rotation and the bullpen have not lived up to its previous standard that helped the team reel in three consecutive division titles the past three years.
In part, it is due to injuries, but subpar play from those available have illustrated a need to ameliorate this area. The Braves are currently 17th in both starting earned run average and opposing batting average, and 18th in walks plus hits per inning pitched. The bullpen is 22nd in ERA, 26th in opposing batting average, and 27th in WHIP, invoking even less optimism. Suffice it to say, the pitching staff could use some help. That is where the 6’6, 238-pound right-hander Williams comes into play.
Braves Should Draft Pitcher Gavin Williams: His Notable Strengths
Featuring an imposing four-pitch repertoire with triple-digit fastball potential and a curveball bite that could consistently delude opposing big-league hitters, Williams could become an intimidating force. The 21-year-old North Carolina native finished his senior campaign as an All-American, posting a 1.88 ERA through 15 games while racking up 130 strikeouts in 81.1 innings pitched.
Williams was unequivocally the engine powering the Pirates’ rotation to qualify for the Super Regional this year before succumbing to the NCAA Championship runner-up Vanderbilt Commodores. And while he may have been on the mound in their game one loss to the Commodores, the right-hander surrendered only two runs and whiffed 13 of them.
The command he possesses is noteworthy too, having coughed up just 2.3 walks per nine innings pitched and three home runs all year. His fastball ranges from 94-97 miles per hour and has touched 100, while his signature spike curveball reaches an upper-70s mph average itself. These are undoubtedly his two most effective pitches, due to the sheer speed of the former and the misleading 12-6 movement of the latter.
Braves Should Draft Pitcher Gavin Williams: Concerns to Address
Three areas present concerns. First, Williams does not have the cleanest track record with injuries. On top of the fractured finger on his throwing hand that sustained in early 2020 that sidelined him for the early part of the season, Williams suffered a torn meniscus back in high school as a senior. This injury history could play a role in the decision-making of the Braves, but the history is not too alarming.
Secondly, Williams should hone his secondary pitches. In addition to his fastball and curveball, he has a slider and a changeup in his arsenal. His slider is not necessarily a weakness, as he has created a lot of swings and misses with that pitch. He has even improved the speed to clock in at the mid-80s.
With that being noted, there is room for improvement with command and lateral movement to reach the level of impact of his fastball and the level of deception in his curveball. His changeup is the weakest and least utilized pitch in his game, despite clocking in at the mid-80s. If he chooses to lean on the fastball/curveball combo though and continues to enhance his slider, he should be fine with just those three if need be.
Finally, there is the fact that Williams declined the first time he was drafted shortly after high school to the Tampa Bay Rays, due to a disagreement in contractual bonus pay. The reason this could be relevant is that he actually is eligible to play another year of college ball because of the COVID-stricken 2020 season. But considering his spectacular 2021 season and his current draft stock, it is highly likely this will be the year he goes pro.
Braves Should Draft Pitcher Gavin Williams: Why He’s the Answer
Now, I am not one who advocates a team to address solely one need, nor do I advocate a team to address their decision solely with the best available prospect. I advocate a combination of both, and that is what picking Williams does. Some suggest the Braves address the potential shortstop crisis, with Dansby Swanson‘s contract nearly expiring and his recent disappointing play. I, frankly, do not believe Swanson is too much of a liability, and certainly not on the level pitching has become. Nor do I think Swanson is incapable of repeating his respectable 2020 campaign that saw him finish top 20 in most valuable player voting.
Additionally, with all due respect to other pitchers hovering near the projection of where the Braves pick, Williams satisfies all criteria. There is more experience in Williams compared to Chase Petty and Ryan Cusick, more arm talent than Michael McGreevy, and more results than Will Bednar.
A similar rationale with experience and results applies to why addressing their outfield early should be an afterthought. The Braves still deliver offensively, and there is less of a pressing glare defensively in the outfield compared to what the current pitching risks. That leaves Williams as the all-encompassing answer for their first pick.
With the versatility he brings and the different pitching repertoire compared to Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa, Williams’s future has the potential to be very, very bright. It could even be bright enough when it is all said and done to become a driving force in catapulting the Braves back into a formidable World Series contender. The Braves need all the help they can get to keep these future aspirations intact. And with their current core in the middle of their prime, time is of the essence to rectify their pitching before a rebuild could be looming.
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