The Braves are set at a lot of roster spots for a long time. Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz, Johan Camargo, and Sean Newcomb are all under team control for the foreseeable future and all have shown that they can be productive major leaguers.
However, one name that is under team control for awhile but whose future with the club seems far less certain is shortstop Dansby Swanson. Swanson doesn’t hit arbitration until 2020 and won’t be eligible to be a free agent until after 2022. That does not necessarily mean that he will be a Brave for that long.
After a very successful debut for the Braves in 2016, we all remember what happened in 2017 which saw him post a wRC+ of 66 and slash .232/.312/.324. He struggled on the defensive side as well which saw him make some great plays and also saw him suffer from very real defensive lapses that seemed to come at the worst times last season. Again, we all remember this well so we won’t dwell to long here.
Coming into 2018, many saw this season as a key one for Dansby and he had more than his fair share of detractors. Some wanted (and still do) for Johan Camargo to get a shot at manning shortstop and more than a few wanted the Braves to look for outside options to replace him. However, one bad season does not a career make, so has Dansby answered his critics? Well, in some ways yes and others, no.
The good news is that his bat has improved over last year by a significant margin. After posting a 66 wRC+ in 2017 which is pretty horrendous, his wRC+ is up to a better but still not great 80 and his OPS is up 60 points over last season. These are positive developments although they are far from definitive.
The biggest improvement he has made is defensively which has seen him go from one of the worst starting shortstops in the league (according to Fangraphs anyways) to in the top six in the league behind only Andrelton Simmons, Jose Iglesias, Francisco Lindor, Marcus Semien, and Trea Turner in terms of defensive prowess.
The bad news, though, is that a big chunk of the progress he has made at the plate has been buoyed by a hot start to the season. In the first month of the season or so, Dansby posted a 104 wRC+ which would be more than adequate given how good he has been defensively. Since then, though, he has posted months of 60 wRC+, 87 wRC+, and 59 wRC+....none of which are good. Some bright spots are that he cut his strikeout rate way down in the months of June and July and there was a power spike in June (.218 ISO). His BABIP has also been below .280 for June and July so that suggests a certain amount of bad luck on balls in play. However, the rest of the news has been quite grim.
So what should the Braves do? Here we have a player that has improved, but whose overall production still resides in the bottom third at his position league wide. Right now the Braves have a few options:
- Ride it out - Swanson was the #1 pick in the draft for a reason. The guy certainly has talent and he has improved in 2018 even though that improvement hasn’t been particularly drastic. Very few teams will have every player in their lineup with an OPS over .800 and if Dansby continues to be a strong defender and make improvements at the plate, he won’t be a liability on the roster.
- Sign/trade for a shortstop in the offseason - Dansby is going to be this team’s shortstop for the remainder of the season unless he stop hitting completely...this much is certain. If the team decides that they want to upgrade at the position and move on, there are options. Manny Machado is the biggest name available on the free agent market this season and he definitely wants to play shortstop, but the defensive metrics have really hated him at shortstop and may not be a fit for an organization that has been prioritizing defense (although it is worth mentioning that he is a defensive asset at third base). Plus, he is going to cost a fortune. With Elvis Andrus already indicating that he is likely not to opt out of his contract to become a free agent, the available options at shortstop are few. Maybe the Giants decide to rebuild and make Brandon Crawford available, but that seems like a stretch.
- Use internal options - This ties somewhat into the second option in that the Braves could upgrade at third base and allow other internal options to fill in at shortstop. One thing is absolutely clear: Johan Camargo is a pretty good baseball player and the Braves really like him. While some of us believe that part of Camargo’s value is in that he can play all over the field and can fill in wherever he is needed while getting regular at-bats, the Braves could simply move Camargo over to short. This would require the team to either hand the reins at third base to Austin Riley or to acquire a third baseman in the offseason.
Again, Machado would be a big get, but he seems set on being a shortstop and would require a huge investment on the Braves’ part even if they could convince him to play third. Josh Donaldson seemed like an intriguing addition, but he cannot seem to stay healthy. Short of being able to pry Nolan Arenado away from the Rockies somehow (he will be entering the last year of his deal) or doing something weird like signing a second baseman and moving Ozzie Albies to shortstop, it seems like giving Riley a shot and moving Camargo over is the most likely option if this the course the Braves choose to take especially given the lack of viable middle infield options in the farm system.
There isn’t a clear answer here. Dansby is still a very popular player amongst sections of the Braves’ fanbase and there are positive qualities to him as a player. However, unlike some of his young contemporaries on the team, his future with the team is much less certain.