ROME, GA — The Rome Braves 2018 Opening Day lineup featured two Atlanta Braves prospects that were high on many people’s breakout season lists. The first was starting pitcher Kyle Muller, who showed flashes of excitement in his full-season debut. The second was outfield prospect Drew Waters.
The Braves drafted the hometown hero was selected in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft out of Etowah High School down the road in Woodstock, Ga. Waters, who made his full-season debut Thursday night in Rome, is no stranger to State Mutual Stadium. He homered in his first trip to the Rome Braves home in the Georgia state championship.
“It was a big one,” Waters told me, recollecting about the shot. “It put us ahead at the end of the game and helped us get to Game 2. I was hitting righty.”
Waters is small in every sense of the word, so there is plenty of room to fill out, which should enhance his sneaky power down the road. He is listed at 6-foot-2 and 183 pounds, and both may be generous, as Waters look wiry at the plate. He can swing a bat though, able to make hard contact on a frequent basis.
The centerfielder is quick with a good arm and should be able to stick in centerfield. Waters is as toolsy as they come and looked good from both sides of the plate. Speaking to Andy Harris who saw him last season in the Appalachian League, his left-handed swing tightened up and looked vastly improved. It is quick through the zone. Waters has spent most of his time hitting lefty, so it should not be surprising that is where most of his power generates.
Waters exploded in the Gulf Coast League last season, but struggled once promoted to the Appy League. He showed he may struggle with some swing-and-miss issues as he improves his hitting (a 70-to-23 strikeout to walk ratio in 198 combined at bats), but when he makes contact, it is often the hardest in the lineup.
Now, Waters is the next toolsy hitting prospect to come through Rome. The last three seasons have seen some of the best and brightest of the Braves future come through State Mutual. Starting with Ozzie Albies in 2015 and continuing to Lugbauer and Waters in 2018, there is a long line of success.
“It’s exciting,” Waters said. “Getting to see guys like Austin Riley, Ronald Acuña, some of the big-time hitters in the Braves organization succeed here gives you a good feeling that you’re going to succeed here. I’m excited to see how the season goes. I hope I can do as well as they have.”
Waters debuted in centerfield in the opener. He batted third in front of the home run threat Drew Lugbauer, so he was set to see some pitches. This was newer for him, batting out of the leadoff spot in Danville last season much of the time.
“It’s a little different,” Waters said. “You get thrown different pitchers hitting in the 3-hole. A lot of changes and a lot of breaking pitches. I definitely think I’ll be able to handle it.”
There is no question that Waters is fearless in attacking pitches he likes from the second he steps in the box. While that may have led to the increased strikeout rates, it is also impressive that he can battle back and even the count in his favor. He did this repeatedly throughout the night, going down early in the count and quickly finding himself in a position to hit.
“I would definitely consider myself an aggressive hitter. Obviously, you only get three strikes, and I typically don’t like to watch them pass by without swinging. That gives you three chances to swing the bat and hopefully one out of those three, you put into play. But I would say I am a smart, aggressive hitter. I’m not just up there swinging, I’m looking for strikes.”
Waters actually got his first “hit” in his first Rome at bat. Unfortunately, it came off his body as he got plunked by a Brigham Hill offering (“Oh yea, that’s going to hurt tomorrow,” Waters said about his first at bat). He came to the plate again batting lefty in his second at bat and went down early in the count. He fought his way back and then ripped a triple down the right field line, sneaking it past the first baseman. He showed good wheels getting to third and it was likely the hardest hit ball by any R-Braves all night.
“It was a good feeling. I got down early, and I battled back in the count. Once I got it down the line it was a sigh of relief. It definitely felt good for that to be my first hit.”
Waters finished 2-for-3, reaching a third time on that HBP. He did strike out in his final at bat hitting righty and took it out on the plate, slamming his bat on the ground. He didn’t have many chances to show off his stuff in centerfield, but he seems to have the skills and instincts to be a solid contributor out there.
Still just 19, Waters is a bit raw. After a strong opening night performance, his progress will be exciting to watch as the season unfolds.