If 2022 Is Dansby’s Swansong in Atlanta, It’s Been a Great One

Dansby Swanson
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

This is a wonderful era of baseball in which to be a fan of shortstops. From Francisco Lindor to Carlos Correa to Corey Seager to Xander Bogaerts, there are so many top-tier players at the position. Contrast that with the 1960s and ’70s, an era from which only one shortstop actually got into the Hall of Fame in Luis Aparicio (Ernie Banks never played another game at short after 1961). A merely “good” shortstop can get overlooked in such an atmosphere.

Dansby Swanson certainly wasn’t overlooked during his days as an amateur. The No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, he was ranked as the best draft-eligible player that year by a number of highly respected analysts and scouts, including our own Kiley McDaniel. Also lending to the hype was the fact that, just six months after being drafted by Arizona, he was the key player in the notorious trade that sent him, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair to Atlanta in exchange for Shelby Miller.

If scouts were over-exuberant about Swanson’s development, so was ZiPS, which pegged him as the fifth-best prospect in baseball before the 2016 season, behind Seager, Byron Buxton, J.P. Crawford, and Orlando Arcia (oof). But Swanson didn’t develop into the superstar that many predicted. Over his first three seasons, he hit .243/.314/.369 for a 75 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR — hardly the worst player in baseball, but a far cry from the phenoms we’ve been blessed with, such as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Trout. While Swanson hadn’t quite been named a bust, there were certainly whispers of disappointment.

If Swanson’s early career didn’t exactly go gangbusters, he steadily improved with the Braves. He had his first two-WAR season in 2019, earned his first MVP vote in ’20, and recorded his first three-WAR season in ’21. Since the start of 2019, he has ranked 10th among shortstops in WAR, sandwiched between Seager and Javier Báez. But in Atlanta’s pecking order in recent years, it’s (rightfully) been Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Ozzie Albies that have drawn the most attention among Braves hitters, with Swanson seemingly relegated to being one of the ohyeahhimtoos in public regard.

He’s been more than that this year, particularly of late. There are a lot of players responsible for Atlanta’s current 14-game win streak, and Swanson’s been a key piece of that puzzle, hitting .379/.455/.586 line with 1.1 WAR. But even when you back up and look at the entire season, it’s not the returning Acuña Jr. leading the team in WAR, nor Albies, the big acquisition Matt Olson, Austin Riley, or one of the pitchers; it’s Swanson.

For the season, Swanson’s 2.8 WAR ranks him third among shortstops, behind only Bogaerts and Tommy Edman, and ZiPS now projects him to finish the year with 5.4 WAR, giving him his first four- and five-WAR seasons in a single shot. Normally, a player like that hitting free agency would be the most coveted at this position, but there’s a chance that Swanson is again overlooked if Trea Turner, Correa, and Bogaerts (the latter two have opt-outs) all reach free agency this winter. But he shouldn’t be. The updated ZiPS projection for Swanson suggests a player who should be highly desired when the offseason arrives:

ZiPS Projection – Dansby Swanson
2023 .266 .328 .432 576 81 153 30 3 20 79 51 156 15 100 3 3.5
2024 .266 .328 .443 542 77 144 30 3 20 76 48 142 14 102 2 3.4
2025 .264 .325 .438 523 73 138 28 3 19 73 46 135 12 100 1 3.0
2026 .262 .324 .426 500 68 131 25 3 17 68 44 125 11 97 0 2.6
2027 .258 .317 .413 477 63 123 23 3 15 62 40 116 9 92 -1 2.0
2028 .254 .310 .394 452 57 115 20 2 13 56 35 102 8 86 -2 1.3

A $200 million bonanza isn’t in the works unless there’s an unexpected bacchanale of spending on the horizon, but ZiPS projects that a good deal for Swanson would easily go into nine-digit territory. The 15.7 WAR projected in the next six years isn’t a galaxy below the pre-2022 projections for Seager (18.1) or Story (15.9). Nor is it a far cry from the options at the top of the market; over the same period, Turner is projected for 19.9 WAR, Correa at 19.1 WAR, and Bogaerts at 14.9 WAR.

As with Freeman last year, Atlanta doesn’t have an obvious successor to Swanson at short should he leave the Braves. It’s been a long time since Albies played the position, and even were such an unlikely move to happen, it would only serve to shift the team’s hole from second to short. Unlike the Freeman situation, there also doesn’t appear to be an obvious candidate for a Freeman-Olson switcheroo, unless White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf starts to panic at the idea of having to bankroll a big extension for Tim Anderson past his two remaining club option years.

I do worry that if Swanson doesn’t have a nice run of All-Star appearances, he’s always doomed to be underrated. Highly touted players who merely become really good players tend to be looked at as mild disappointments, such as Gregg Jefferies, who went on to have a perfectly respectable career and was a usable starter for a decade. Just about a month ago, I had an argument with someone who was insisting that Ben McDonald was a disappointment despite him compiling 20.5 WAR without making it to his age-30 season because of injury. No. 1 picks tend to get compared to the elites in that category, like Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, or Ken Griffey Jr.; merely becoming B.J. Surhoff or Rick Monday or Darin Erstad is valuable but certainly a lot less sexy.

Is Dansby Swanson a star? I’m not quite sure I’d put him in that category yet, but if there’s a “damn good” category, I think he deserves to be included. If your opinions of Swanson were strongly written in pen as a result of his unexciting start to his major league career, I’d urge you to take a second look at a very good player (and bring a bottle of Wite-Out).

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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7 months ago

Mighty interesting that Dansby’s projected WAR in the next 6 years is higher than Xander’s and essentially equal to Trevor Story’s projected WAR. He could be quite the bargain . . .

7 months ago
Reply to  Creamy

I don’t really buy that Xander’s projected WAR is going to be lower than Story and Swanson. Xander is slightly older than Swanson and his defense is definitely worse than him, but he’s had a wRC+ well above 130 for the last 2300 PAs. And Story is probably a second baseman going forward and has had some hitting struggles. They’ll all be good but Xander is a very good baseball player.

7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think you’re underestimating how bad Xander is defensively.

Dansby has been worth 19 OAA since 2016.
Trevor Story has been worth 18 OAA since 2016.
Xander Bogaerts has been worth -41 OAA since 2016.
There’s only so much a great bat can compensate for that when you’re playing a premium defensive position.

7 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Oh, I don’t think Bogaerts is going to be a shortstop on his next contract unless he returns to Boston. But Story also isn’t a shortstop anymore.

7 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Bottom line is since Story’s debut in 2016,
Bogaerts has wrc+ 125 26.4 fwar (5.0 war/162G)
Story has wrc+ 111 22.8 fwar. (4.6 war/162G)
so clearly a great bat can compensate for bad defense.

More importantly, Bogaerts is trending in the right direction
while Story’s bat is not what it used to be.
At this point, I consider Story to be closer to a 3 win player than 4,
while Bogaerts is closer to a 5 win player than 4.

7 months ago
Reply to  tung_twista

My points was about the projections. If you’re bad defensively, as you get older and slower, you’re going to get worse defensively.

It’s not hard to see why 6 years down the line, being both a year older and much worse defensively, Bogaerts’s defensive value would be increasingly negative, wiping out enough of the value from his bat so that his projections wouldn’t exceed Swanson’s.

Yes, Bogaerts is a better hitter, and if I was betting, I’d bet on him to continue being a good hitter down the line. I’d also bet on him having to move down the defensive spectrum down the line.

7 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

I can see him on a Hanley Ramirez curve. Where he goes from being a barely passable SS to a 1B/DH in a blink of an eye