ESPN names their top 2024 breakout candidate for the Braves

MLB: MAR 29 Braves at Phillies

Seemingly every season, someone comes out of the woodwork for the Braves and crushes their WAR projections. Last year, it was Ronald Acuna Jr. who won his first NL MVP award. Before that, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider turned in historic rookie campaigns, finishing first and second in the NL Rookie of the Year race.

Because of the way the Braves draft and develop, this has become an annual occurrence in Atlanta. It’s no longer a matter of if it will happen, it’s more of who is next?

There are a plethora of candidates in 2024. Michael Harris is looking like a superstar early on in the season and could enter his name in the MVP conversation, a lot like Acuna did a year ago. Adam Duvall and Jarred Kelenic are also both off to impressive starts. Then, there are the young options, like AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep, the former of which is who Kiley McDaniels of ESPN has pegged as the Braves player most likely to breakout in 2024. 

Atlanta Braves

AJ Smith-Shawver, RHP (FG projection: 0.3 WAR)

Austin Riley is a sneaky good choice here (the projection expects defensive regression after a clear improvement in 2023) and I’m pretty sure either Adam Duvall or Jarred Kelenicwill beat their projection, but I couldn’t decide which. Smith-Shawver is the Braves’ sixth starter (I think he’s ahead of Bryce Elder, Huascar Ynoa, Ian Anderson, et al.) and starting in Triple-A. With Chris Sale and Reynaldo Lopez in the rotation, projecting a dozen or more starts for Smith-Shawver is a good bet.

AJ Smith-Shawver certainly isn’t the worst choice. Although, it might be a while before we see him at the major-league level again. The Braves starting rotation is loaded at the top. Spencer Strider, Max Fried, Chris Sale, and Charlie Morton aren’t going anywhere unless there is an injury. The fifth spot is owned by Reynaldo Lopez, who has yet to make his Braves debut.

It’s very possible Lopez’s tenure in the rotation is short-lived. He’s been better as a reliever over his career, but I’m not even sure Smith-Shawver is next in line. Bryce Elder was an NL All-Star a year ago and turned in a splendid first outing of the season for the Gwinnett Stripers. I would bet he would get the next opportunity in the majors if Lopez struggles or an injury arises.

Eventually, I do expect Smith-Shawver to get some run as a starter with the Braves this season, but it could be a while, which is why my breakout candidate for the Braves in 2024 lies in left field.

Prior to the season, one of my bold predictions for the Braves was that Adam Duvall and Jarred Kelenic would end the year with 4+ WAR combined. So far, they’ve made me look like a genius, but since I can only choose one for this piece, I’ll ride with the hot hand in Kelenic.

Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer didn’t waste any time making significant adjustments to Kelenic’s approach at the plate. It took a little while for the results to show themselves, but Kelenic ending the spring strong and is off to a red-hot start to begin the season, collecting six hits in 11 at-bats. There will be peaks and valleys in 2024, but by the end of the year, I expect Kelenic to far exceed his FanGraphs projection of 0.8 fWAR, establishing himself as the left fielder of the future in Atlanta.

Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

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