• Exclusives

    The ‘Swanson Situation’ Requires Patience, Long-Term View

    By Bud L. Ellis

    ATLANTA — The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, takes its appointed path bending toward the outside corner of the plate, and the batter swings over the top of the sliding sphere as the ball thuds into the catcher’s mitt.

    The umpire cries, “strike three,” the crowd groans, and the 23-year-old hitter with the boyish good looks, the gorgeous hair, the aw-sucks temperament, and the weight of a hometown team and hometown friends on his young shoulders begins the walk back to the dugout.

    It is a common refrain we have seen from Dansby Swanson through the first four months of this 2017 baseball season, the first full campaign of major-league duty for Cobb County’s favorite son, a locale which by coincidence also is hosting the Atlanta Braves for the first season in brand-new SunTrust Park.

    Entering play Sunday, Swanson was batting just .210 with a .593 OPS

    Entering play Sunday, SS Dansby Swanson was batting just .210 with a .593 OPS and -0.3 WAR

    Swanson was anointed by the Braves fanbase as a linchpin of the team’s future, a key cog in the rebuild of the once-proud franchise that promised a return to baseball prominence while moving into a new home park. And the kid did nothing to shake that faith upon being summoned last August from Double-A Mississippi to man shortstop for his hometown team, hitting .302 across his first 38 big-league games while flashing the type of defense and leadership that led him through a successful college career at Vanderbilt before Arizona made him the top overall pick in the 2015 draft.

    But the numbers in 2017 have not been kind. Entering Sunday’s contest at Los Angeles, Swanson was hitting .210 with an OPS of .593 and 84 strikeouts in 319 at-bats. With Johan Camargo’s emergence as an impact player in an already-crowded Braves infield, Swanson’s struggles have presented Atlanta manager Brian Snitker a difficult decision every time he fills out the lineup card.

    The common answer of late has been to sit Swanson, who did not start Sunday and has a scant four hits in 43 July at-bats. Camargo, by comparison, brought a .336 average entering Sunday since begin recalled from the minors June 2.

    Camargo must play. Despite the numbers, Swanson has to play, too.

    Were the Braves knocking on the door of a playoff spot, were this 2018 or 2019 and Atlanta was four or five years into this rebuild, this conversation takes a different turn. There is no doubt a guy batting so close to the Mendoza Line with so many strikeouts would not warrant being in the regular starting eight in the midst of a pennant race.

    But a news flash to all the GMs and managers currently filling their social media accounts with the not-so-hot takes of “send Dansby to Gwinnett” … that is not the right answer. Not right now.

    Rookies struggle. It has happened as long as this game has been played, and will be the case long after you and me and Swanson and Camargo and Snitker have watched our final game. Opponents are smart. They have adjusted to Swanson, who thusly has struggled with adjusting back to the new attack plan of pounding sliders low and away. Face it. It happens.

    But what value is provided by sending Swanson to Triple-A, a level he skipped in getting his promotion to The Show last summer? From a confidence and attitude standpoint, there would not be any worries. Swanson has been in the spotlight since suiting up for Marietta High, a mere 10.8 miles from the new home of the Braves, a glare further enhanced by winning Most Outstanding Player while leading Vanderbilt to the 2014 College World Series title. A brief step back to collect himself would not harm a kid who has experienced so much at such a high level, whose confidence and demeanor indicate a guy who gets it, one who the Atlanta front office has placed tremendous trust in so early in his career.

    Braves SS Dansby Swanson

    Braves SS Dansby Swanson

    But what would Swanson see at Triple-A that would impact his development? Short answer: very little. He needs to play every day, against major-league pitching. Yes, there invariably will be bumps in the road. Every young player experiences dry spells. David Justice, who hit .279 with 305 homers in a successful major-league career, started his big-league days by going 1-for-20. Some kids struggle out of the gate; others hit a roadblock after a few months.

    The best path forward for Swanson is to be in the lineup as much as possible. With the trade deadline looming next week and the possibility Atlanta will move first baseman Matt Adams – a move that would shift Freddie Freeman back to first base permanently – and potentially veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, the logjam in the Braves infield soon may ease.

    But even if the Braves keep Adams and Phillips, they – and their fanbase – must continue to keep focus on the development of Atlanta’s rebuild. There is no denying Swanson is a critical component of the retooling of this franchise. Beyond being a co-face of the franchise with Freeman, Swanson’s skill sets and potential as an impactful bat and glove scream that the kid needs to play, to work through his struggles, to get better against major-league pitching in major-league games.

    The Braves are not going to play in the World Series in 2017. If they did, it would be the greatest miracle since the 1991 Braves found themselves in the 10th inning of Game 7 of that season’s Fall Classic. Atlanta likely is not going to make the playoffs this season. It has been awesome to see this team battle to stay on the fringes of the wild-card race, but that is not the ultimate goal.

    The goal is to win championships, plural. The time for that is coming, and maybe sooner than many of us think. But to get to that level, Swanson must be productive. There is no harm in letting the kid figure it out right now. From the potential we’ve glimpsed of this kid and his team, the prudent move is to shove aside the “right-now” perspective and adopt the “long-term” approach.

    In this era of instant gratification and wanting results yesterday, that’s not an easy mindset to adopt. But the approach that keeps Swanson playing on a regular basis in the majors is the right approach.


    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.