For the Braves, the future is now—or at least Wednesday. On Tuesday night, Atlanta announced that it would be calling up top prospect and 2015 No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson to the majors, with the shortstop set to make his debut in Wednesday’s game against Minnesota. Swanson’s arrival, aside from making a mid-August game between the Twins and Braves a watchable event, adds yet another young player to a league flush with elite under-25 talent and is one of the first steps in Atlanta’s path from bottom feeder back to relevance.
Swanson, 22, has undergone a meteoric rise in the last calendar year. The Vanderbilt product and Georgia native was the top selection in last June’s draft by the Diamondbacks, then was dealt over the winter to the Braves as the headliner in the trade for Shelby Miller. Atlanta’s haul—along with Swanson, the team also landed centerfielder Ender Inciarte and minor league righthander Aaron Blair—looked like a major win for the Braves at the time. It’s become even more of one since, with Miller struggling so badly for Arizona (a 7.14 ERA in 69 1/3 innings before being demoted last month) that Swanson et al have already made the deal a steal for the Braves.
Given Swanson’s superb season to date, it’s a trade that’s only going to get better for Atlanta. Ranked as high as No. 8 on the three major prospect lists before the season, Swanson has hit a terrific .275/.362/.426 with nine home runs over 470 plate appearances through two levels of the minors (high A Carolina and Double A Mississippi). His excellent 2016 performance landed him the No. 7 spot in Baseball America’s Midseason Top 100 prospects list, where he was lauded as “the Braves’ hope for the future.” It’s no fluke, either: Swanson’s preseason writeup at Baseball Prospectus (as Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect) noted that, while he is not a superstar in the making, he boasts “an incredibly high floor ... [and] can provide above-average defense at a premium position.” With that level of production and promise and an opening at the major league level (the Braves cleared space on the roster earlier Tuesday by dealing veteran shortstop Erick Aybar to the Tigers), a promotion was a matter of when, not if.
As good as Swanson has been, his ascension is still remarkably fast. Swanson took just 397 days from being signed (July 17, 2015) to getting the call, the third-shortest amount of time since 2000 (beat out only by Stephen Strasburg in ’09 at 295 days and fellow Commodore David Price in ’08 at 396 days). Among position players taken No. 1, he’s the fastest to reach the majors since Darin Erstad, who took 324 days from being chosen with the top pick in 1995 to making his debut with the Angels in ’96.
Swanson becomes the 13th active No. 1 pick in the majors, and fittingly enough, his debut comes less than one week after the departure of Alex Rodriguez, the first selection of the 1993 draft. Like Swanson, Rodriguez blazed his way through the minors, taking just 312 days between signing and making his MLB debut for the Mariners at shortstop. Rodriguez’s debut was a mere cup of coffee, however: He was up for just 17 games in 1994 and hit only .204. The Braves aren’t bringing Swanson up just to send him down in three weeks’ time. In that sense, his call-up is closer to that of 2012 No. 1 pick Carlos Correa, who debuted last June amid the Astros’ unlikely surge to a playoff spot.
Swanson won’t face anything near the pressure Correa did as a middle-of-the-order hitter for a postseason contender—not with the Braves sitting at a miserable 44–75 record this season after Tuesday’s loss to the Twins—but Atlanta is hoping his arrival can help spur a Houston-like turnaround. The Braves’ dismal season is a result of a dismantling that featured the departures of Miller, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr., Andrelton Simmons and virtually every other valuable player since the franchise canned general manager Frank Wren back in September of 2014. Under new personnel boss John Coppolella, Atlanta has undergone a drastic rebuild, dealing away tons of major league talent for the likes of Swanson.
The result of all that tearing down is one of the best farm systems in baseball—the Braves were ranked second in BP’s preseason list—but a major league team that is, to put it bluntly, unwatchable. Beyond their record and a .373 winning percentage that is dead last in the majors, the Braves are also 30th in runs scored per game, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+. First baseman Freddie Freeman is the only Braves player hitting even close to above league average, with a 146 OPS+; the next highest mark on the team is second baseman Jace Peterson’s 98. (That’s not counting Matt Kemp, who arrived in a late July trade from San Diego with 23 home runs and a 105 OPS+ to his name but has hit just .217 and gone deep only once with Atlanta.)
Swanson can only do so much to better those numbers offensively, but he at least offers hope that improvement is coming down the road for Atlanta. He isn’t alone, either. Fellow highly-rated shortstop prospect Ozzie Albies earned the No. 17 spot on BA’s midseason list (though the Braves have already said Albies, 19, won’t be coming to the majors this season), and starters Sean Newcomb, 2015 first-round pick Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka and Touki Toussaint (also nabbed from Arizona in a questionable deal for the Diamondbacks) made the top 100 as well. And while Blair has been hit hard in his brief major league stays (a 7.99 ERA and as many walks as strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings this year), all that young talent should have Braves fans feeling better about this year’s execrable results at Turner Field. And to that, Atlanta can add high school righty Ian Anderson, taken third in this year’s draft, and a likely top-five selection next June.
As is, Swanson will join a Braves team that has been competitive since the All-Star break, going 13–16 in the second half—still below .500, but a far cry better than Atlanta’s 31–58 mark in the first half. Those results won’t matter, though. All that will and should matter is how the likes of Swanson, Freeman, Peterson, Inciarte, righthander Julio Teheran, third baseman Adonis Garcia and others perform. They will be the ones who determine whether or not the future truly will be a bright one for the Braves.