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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Dansby Swanson was a homegrown star for the Braves. He may get paid elsewhere


In 2015, Dansby Swanson introduced himself to the big leagues as a No. 1 overall draft pick with high marks in his glove work and ability to hit line drives. As it turned out, it would take Swanson seven years to record a breakout All-Star season and blossom into one of the best shortstops in the game. 

Now exploring free agency at 28 years old, Swanson has developed into the steady and seasoned athlete we’ve been waiting for. The question is, does Swanson’s enhanced value put him in the conversation of franchise shortstops? 

The Atlanta Braves have thoroughly considered that question and it increasingly appears like the organization’s answer is that Swanson could become their franchise shortstop, but he’s not there yet. As such, the Braves would be willing to retain Swanson at the right price, but perhaps not at the highest price. Swanson’s free agency may come down to how much money he is willing to forego to remain in Atlanta.

So Swanson, a Kennesaw, Ga. native who rose through Atlanta’s ranks and has spent seven seasons playing for his favorite boyhood team, is fielding other offers. The timing of Swanson’s free agency means he’s not at the top of the list for contending teams. But the career-best season that Swanson just put together means he would still be a welcome addition to one of several teams looking to fill a hole at shortstop this winter. And one of those several teams will be paying upwards of $100 million to land him.

Swanson entered free agency this offseason in a class rich with elite shortstops, including Trea Turner, Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts. Swanson is projected to receive the most moderate long-term deal among those shortstops in this year’s free-agency group, with industry experts suggesting that his successful 2022 season demands somewhere in the range of $20-25 million or more over five or six years. 

The Braves and other top contenders certainly value Swanson’s defense; his 21 Outs Above Average this past season were the most among all MLB shortstops, leading to his first-career Gold Glove award this year. His 6.4 fWAR trailed only Francisco Lindor (6.8 fWAR) among major league shortstops. 

“He’s become an amazing player,” Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos said at this month’s GM Meetings. “He’s arguably the best defensive shortstop in the game with the work he has done.”

On the other side of the ball, Swanson’s 26.1% strikeout rate was the third-highest among all shortstops — higher still than the infamously swing-happy Javier Baez, who recorded a fourth-highest 24.9% strikeout rate. And even though Swanson just posted consecutive 25-home run seasons, his .776 OPS this past season is not as attractive as that posted by Correa (.834), Bogaerts (.833) and Turner (.809). While there is no denying that Swanson is, offensively, not in the same class as Correa, Bogaerts and Turner, Swanson’s 116 wRC+ indicates that he was still 16% better at the plate than the average MLB hitter.

In a vacuum, Swanson’s still-humdrum offense suggests that the Braves can find a better bat through free agency this offseason by letting him walk and, instead, going for one of those top three shortstops. Signing Correa would be the splashiest move, while signing Turner, who reportedly would like to leave Los Angeles in favor of an east-coast team, would also make sense for the Braves. But for now, Atlanta is looking in-house.

Those hoping for a Swanson-Braves reunion received unfavorable news last week when The Athletic reported that Atlanta has already begun preparing its rookie standout, Vaughn Grissom, to transition into the team’s starting shortstop spot.

Grissom, who primarily played shortstop in the minors but was called up to play second base, posted a 121 OPS+ in 41 games for the Braves after his mid-August promotion to the big leagues. This winter in New Orleans, Grissom is training under the supervision of Braves third-base coach Ron Washington, who is considered one of the top infield instructors in the game. And Washington, according to the report, recently told Anthopolous that he could get Grissom to be ready to play shortstop full-time by spring training.

Related: Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman rank the top 30 MLB free agents 

“I don’t think Swanson is replaceable unless they go get a superstar,” Washington told The Athletic. “But we can handle the position. We’ve got (Orlando) Arcia, and we’ve got Grissom – that kid is getting better and better every day. I’m telling you, he’s improving big-time.”

Swanson’s strength lies in his aforementioned defense, but also in his durability. 

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound shortstop’s 362 games played are the most in MLB since the start of 2020. He led the league in his 2022 All-Star season by playing all 162 games. He finished 12th on this year’s National League MVP ballot, garnering 23 total votes. Unlike Correa and his involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, Swanson comes with no baggage. At 28, he’s a few months older than Correa, but younger than Turner and Bogaerts, and certainly playing in his prime. Swanson’s ability to post, make big plays and get big hits helped lead the Braves to their 2021 championship, and he would instantly become an integral part of any other top contender’s roster.

The Dodgers, with old teammate Freddie Freeman manning first base, would be a good fit for Swanson in the event Turner departs Hollywood. Other teams that need a shortstop, or already have one who could be departing, and would pay up for Swanson include the Cubs, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, and Phillies — and that’s just to name a handful among a larger group of interested suitors.

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As things stand today, it increasingly appears as if Swanson’s offense will never justify his rank as a former first-overall draft pick — especially when considering Alex Bregman was selected second overall in that 2015 draft class. But Swanson has always seemed destined for stardom. His 2022 season has built the case that his defense is more than just tolerable; it’s remarkable. His overall makeup includes being reliable on the field and uncontroversial off the field. 

Swanson’s first experience in free agency will, it seems, see teams offering more money than the Braves are willing to allocate to their seven-year shortstop. What he decides to do next will determine whether he will become a franchise shortstop for the team he grew up supporting, or whether he will try to fill that role elsewhere. But one thing is clear: the Braves are allowing Swanson to be charmed by better offers. And he just might take another team up on one.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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