The title of this piece is not meant to be anything more or anything less than what the statement itself logically means.
The 2019 Braves season was a disappointment, despite 97 wins and a second straight division title. This was a team built to make a deep run into the postseason, with a realistic chance to make it to the World Series. Unfortunately, that did not happen. And now, Atlanta finds itself in an offseason in which it has every reason to do all it can to change that narrative, and change it for good.
Thanfully, the Braves are clearly a team that is setup to compete well into (and perhaps all of) the next decade, with a young core that few other teams can rival. Despite the wonderful outlook for the future, there are ways in which the Braves can make the future even brighter. Furthermore, those ways could also make the Braves World Series chances in the present even stronger.
The ways I mention are the not so far fetched idea of dipping into the Braves young core to acquire a true difference maker for the foreseeable future. There are several young intriguing Braves talents that comprise a significant part of our current roster. Some of these talents are about as “untouchable” as any player in baseball can be. This group obviously includes Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Mike Soroka. Max Fried is trending toward this level, due to the Braves need for pitching and his flashes of brilliance.
A larger portion of the Braves enviable young talent falls more into the category of “we really hope they reach their potential in Atlanta” group than being deemed untouchable. Naturally, top prospects such as Ian Anderson, Cristian Pache, and Drew Waters fit this group. Other young talents who have flashed their immense upside but also have displayed obvious struggles, such as Austin Riley, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson, fall into this group as well.
Despite the majority of the Braves young players being a logical fit for one of the aforementioned groups or the other, one “been here a while but still before his prime” Brave arguably spends most of time in limbo. The reason being is that his up and down play, injury history, and fixing to be in arbitration price tag makes it hard to truly place what his value his. And due to his age, there is some complexity in determining whether he is who he is as a player now or if he still has significant room to improve.
There should be no dispute that Dansby Swanson is valuable. His steady defense, improving offense, and penchant for producing in the clutch make him a clear starter and significant piece of the Braves present and future. Many felt that with his production in the first half of 2019 (.822 OPS. .341 wOBA, 108 wRC+, .223 ISO), which garnered All-Star Game consideration, Swanson was “turning the corner” to become another difference maker for the Braves offense while remaining the anchor of the Braves defense. While his progression as a hitter may have involved some luck, it also was a direct result of Swanson’s hard work and effort to significantly improve.
Unfortunately, for the second straight year, Swanson experienced a significant injury that stalled a true breakout season. A heel injury kept him out for more than a month, and once Swanson was back, his past struggles at the plate decided to accompany him. From August 23rd to the end of the season, Swanson was a true liability (.552 OPS, .253 wOBA, 51 wRC+, .051 ISO, 31.6 K%) at the plate. However, the Braves decided to stick with Swanson despite the lack of production, as he simply remained the best option to feature at shortstop.
Not only did Swanson start all five games of the NLDS, he arguably was the Braves best hitter (because of course he was). Big hits late in Game 1 and Game 3 could not have been more clutch to overcome an Atlanta offense that was having a hard time producing runs. While the Braves ultimately fell short against the Cardinals, Swanson performed as best he could on the biggest stage, and had good momentum going into the offseason.
Overall, and three plus seasons into his career, there is no disputing the fact that Dansby Swanson is a valuable starter for the Braves at shortstop. He has been worth 3.2 bWAR and 3.4 fWAR over the past two years, and had a very good chance to eclipse 2 WAR before his injury. He has maintained a reliable to above average glove in the field (had a reasonable gold glove case in 2018), and has seen steady improvements in his offensive production. His OPS has increased from .636 to .748 between 2017 and 2019, while his wOBA has increased from .276 to .317 and his wRC+ has improved from 64 to 92 over that same time frame. Swanson has consistently made and maintained needed adjustments on offense that have made him a significantly better hitter than he was two years ago.
While there should be no question as to whether Swanson is a valuable player, I feel it is fair to question what his true value is. I feel Swanson’s best stretch of offense was in April of 2018, though he likely was playing over his head. If Swanson were to settle into the type of player that he was in the first half of 2019, he logically could be an annual 3 WAR player with a few 4 WAR and potential All Star campaigns sprinkled in over the next decade. However, if Swanson were to continue being the streaky enigma at the plate he has been overall thus far into his career, it seems he could settle into the 2 WAR level producer. No matter which of these outcomes becomes a reality, Swanson certainly will be starting at shortstop for years to come; furthermore, his progression earlier this year suggests he still has the ability to become a star.
Besides his talent, Swanson’s cost control is attractive as well. Because of his up and down production so far in is career, he should be able to create a good return on a cost versus production valuation for his remaining years of control (projected $3.3M cost for 2020 in ARB Year 1.) Even if he does experience a potential breakout, he should confidently be viewed as a bargain for the foreseeable future. For a team on a budget such as the Braves, that is the exact type of young player you want as a complement to your featured stars.
So, with all the reasons mentioned above as to why it makes perfect sense for the Braves to hang on and perhaps invest further in Swanson, why would it ever be a good idea to trade him?
The answer has to do more with the current position of the Braves as a team and the baseball market as a whole than it does with Swanson.
Atlanta knows it has a team to make the playoffs. As a result, the moves it is making now is mainly focused on how to become a true threat to survive and advance in the playoffs. For instance, for a team that cannot afford a true ace, the Braves have focused on assembling quality arms in their bullpen. The majority of the Braves best talents (Acuna Jr., Albies, Soroka, Fried, Freddie) are locked up at bargain prices for the next few years. As a a result, it seems Atlanta’s front office knows the time to go for it is now. However, because they do not have the financial resources other teams do to buy the difference makers to go for it, the have to get creative to get the star level talent they hope (damn it, need!) to acquire.
The signing of Josh Donaldson was their way to accomplish that goal last year. If the Braves were to resign him, the need to make a significant move for a star level talent declines. However, due to his amazing 2019 season, there is more of a chance than previously thought that Donaldson could sign elsewhere. If he does, the Braves likely will not enter the Anthony Rendon sweepstakes. While they could sign other potential difference making talents, it will take significant dollars (and a potential draft pick) to acquire someone who might come close to what Donaldson provided last year.
That simply does not make much sense for the Braves, especially after already giving up a draft pick for Will Smith. It also seems to go against the style of business that Alex Anthopoulos seems to prefer. One avenue that Anthopoulos has shown a preference for is creatively constructing trades that result in the acquisition of All-Star level talents that he can control for multiple years. Donaldson, Jose Reyes, David Price, RA Dickey, Troy Tulowitzki and others are proof of this from his time in Toronto. And considering the reasons mentioned above, this offseason seems like a good time to pull a rabbit out of the hat once again.
The market this year has some speculative trade pieces that would check all the boxes for Anthopoulos. Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, and Mookie Betts all could logically be on the trade market this offseason. Of course, we also know Anthopoulos is prone to having a target no one even considered in his back pocket. The one thing these targets share (besides Betts) is that they come with multiple years of control.
Especially in the case of Lindor and Story, where the Indians and Rockies will likely only trade either player if they can get a suitable replacement back in return, Swanson makes good sense to be a significant part of a potential package. For the same reasons he makes sense for the Braves above, he would make perfect sense for the majority of the teams in baseball. If Atlanta could include him in a deal, it likely would mean they would have to give up significantly less of a prospect cost overall.
The key phrase in all of this to remember is that any potential move involving Swanson has to make sense. In fact, it has to make perfect sense. Swanson is not a player who should be shopped, or dumped for salary, or traded because he is blocking someone. He is a priority talent for the Braves, both because he is a valuable player and because Atlanta has no logical replacement. However, if Atlanta could acquire a player under similar control who has proven to be of significantly higher value than Swanson, they should not hesitate to include him in a deal.
The Braves faced this same dilemma three years ago in their pursuit of Chris Sale. It was understood that Swanson was deemed “untouchable” in trade talks. Swanson’s evolution as a player should in no way make Atlanta regret holding onto him instead of pursuing Sale. While Swanson has played a major role in the Braves becoming a contender quicker than many expected, it is fair to wonder how this team would have done over the past two postseasons with Sale at the top of the rotation.
That is the other key in this discussion. Swanson’s value makes the specific situations in which she should be traded quite limited. However, those situations also come with much more certainty than the Braves had three years ago. Again, the Braves know there is a good chance they will be contending over the next several years. There is also the understanding that if Swanson struggles again in 2020, along with continuing to lose cost control over time, Swanson’s trade value would likely decline. As a result, if there was ever a time in which Atlanta would actually consider trading Swanson, it is now due to his trade value being at its potential peak.
Therefore, while it needs to make perfect sense to trade Swanson, Anthopoulos and Atlanta have every reason to force the situation to make sense. Aggressively shopping Swanson due to having a negative opinion of his future is not the case here. Aggressively pursuing an outcome that in every logical way makes your team a true World Series favorite should be the case here. As a result, the Braves should confidently and eagerly make this type of trade happen if it can.
If this in any way comes across a lack of appreciation for Dansby Swanson, that is not the case. Swanson is a wonderful representative of the Braves on and off the field, one I could truly see stepping up as that offensive difference maker that could significantly contribute when we finally win a playoff series. However, Anthopoulos has shown the ability many times over in his time with the Braves that he can use creativity to help the Braves maintain their quality in the minors while also taking his team to the next level as a contender. In several of the realistic cases where the Braves could acquire a star level talent, including Swanson gives you a better chance to actually make the trade happen than a plethora of prospects.
In the end, I find it very likely that Swanson will be in a Braves uniform for years to come, and that he can help the Braves win a title. There is not doubt he is loved by his teammates and this fanbase. However, in the right situation, I feel Swanson’s best value is as a trade chip to get the true difference maker that could make the Braves chances for a title significantly better than they are right now.