As Atlanta dissects a letdown season in which many things went wrong, one setback in particular has put the team in a quandary for 2018 and beyond. More than almost any other question, the team will need to ask this: Is Dansby Swanson a good major league player?
His 2017 numbers suggest otherwise. Swanson’s batted just .233/.315/.330 this season, the third-worst mark among all NL hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. If you’re looking for a saving grace in his defense ... well, there hasn’t been much to celebrate on that front either. Per Baseball Info Solutions, Swanson’s defense checks in at five runs worse than league average by Defensive Runs Saved, the 29th-worst mark among all MLB shortstops this year. For a rebuilding franchise pushing hard to develop impact young players, those aren’t good signs.
So you look for signs of optimism. Like Swanson hoisting his on-base percentage to a healthy .350 since the All-Star break, paced by him hitting .309 with a .422 OBP in August—raising hope within the organization that he’s learning how to make adjustments at the big league level. Or that both his walk and strikeout rates have improved compared to his 38-game cameo in 2016, when he batted a robust .302/.361/.442 but did so in large part due to a fluky .383 batting average on balls in play. Or that he’s just 23 years old, expectations were through the roof for a top prospect traded to his hometown team, and that Atlanta still gets five more years of Swanson service time for improvements to happen.
Not every No. 1 overall pick becomes a star, and Swanson’s lack of power at both the minor- and major-league levels will likely limit his upside, even if he starts to harness his other tools. The good news is that those are other tools are legion, with scouts grading his ability to hit for average and especially his glove as pluses for the future. That convergence of skills might hew closer to Tony Fernandez than Cal Ripken, but a good, cost-controlled player for the next half a decade would certainly help the cause, even if we need to tap the brakes on the early Cooperstown campaign.