Three Cuts: Is Dansby Swanson's success key to perception of Braves' heralded farm system?
Moving into their new home, SunTrust Park, will no doubt be of the utmost importance for the Braves in 2017, but in terms of the on-field product, it's hard to imagine a bigger homecoming than the one that took place last August.
That, of course, was the arrival of Dansby Swanson, who came in with the added pressure of being the organization's No. 1 prospect and being a Marietta native in tow. After a scuffling start in which he hit .236 with two extra-base hits through 15 games, the 22-year-old proceeded to slash .351/.417/.568 in the next 23 and hit .400 over the last five games at Turner Field.
Hype was met. But potentially the best part of Swanson's closing stretch is that he maintained his rookie eligibility by a mere two at-bats.
So with the possibility of Atlanta's first Rookie of the Year since Craig Kimbrel in 2011 -- and maybe the team's seventh overall -- here are three key questions for the Braves at shortstop in '17.
Brett DavisBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
1. How crucial is Swanson's success to the overall perception of the rebuild?
The locks, the Braves promise, will be "life-like."
In his first full year in the majors, Swanson will be treated do his first bobblehead, one that's being called "The Flow." While it's meeting the adoration that the Georgian has been met with since he was acquired via trade in December 2015, it also ties into how crucial the success of Dansby Swanson, Braves No. 1 prospect is to the overall perception of the retooling at the hands of general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart.
ESPN's Keith Law released his list of the top 100 prospects in baseball last week and while Swanson was No. 2 behind the Red Sox's Andrew Benintendi, Atlanta had nine players in all make the cut. That includes Ozzie Albies (26th), Kolby Allard (32nd), Ronald Acuna (36th), Max Fried (50th), Ian Anderson (52nd), Kevin Maitan (59th), Luiz Gohara (77th) and Sean Newcomb (81st).
Furthering that sentiment, Baseball America's projected 2020 Atlanta lineup includes seven of those players, along with Austin Riley, Dustin Peterson and Patrick Weigel.
So there is an insane amount of depth in the organization, and considering among those on Law's list, only international signees Albies and Acuna weren't acquired by Coppolella/Hart since they began this process in November 2015, they could hit on a number of future mainstays.
But it's hard to imagine -- in the short term anyway -- the take on the rebuild not being tied to Swanson.
It's an unfair set of pressures, but considering the few impact bats the Braves have knocking on the door (Albies should arrive in '17, but Maitan is just 16 and Riley has yet to get past Single-A) and Swanson's quick ascension to the bigs, he stands the face of progress.
That the Braves allowed him to live through the fanfare of his arrival last season only helps as he takes over as the every day shortstop from this season's start. But he certainly looked the part of cornerstone in those 38 games in '16 with a .302/.361/.443 slash line, seven doubles, a triple and three homers to go with 17 RBI and strong defense (1.1 dWAR).
Hiccups are going to come, though Swanson's makeup and personality seem to indicate his can handle them and being seen as the poster boy of this rekindling of the franchise, just has he has in being a No. 1 overall pick and playing for his home team.
Brett DavisBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
2. What can hitting second mean to Swanson's production?
Here in may lie the key to Swanson meeting and potentially exceeding projections in '17 -- which, per Steamer include a .259/.322/.396 slash line, 27 doubles, four triples, 13 home runs and 58 RBI -- as he figures to climb into the No. 2 spot ahead of Freddie Freeman in the lineup.
It was an extremely small sample size of Swanson hitting in that spot last season as he did so just once, going 1 for 3 with a home run on Sept. 29 against the Phillies. He did most of his best work at eighth, carrying a .333 average and .380 on-base percentage with two homers and 14 RBI in 101 trips to the plate, but Swanson profiles at No. 2, a point Hart drove home in December's Winter Meetings.
"Dansby's a perfect 2-hole hitter because he can do so many things," Hart said. "It's a valid point: When do we think (he's ready)? Are we comfortable? Is Dansby gonna play the 8-hole the rest of next year?
"He's going to have a learning curve next year, too. Don't think he won't. It's not gonna be perfect. And that's OK. But what he did in the two months that he was up here, he learned a lot. He experienced it."
At No. 2 stands to reason that Swanson would see more quality pitches with Freeman, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis likely hitting behind him at Nos. 3-5, and it stands to reason that the Braves could use some stability in front of their heart of their order.
Last season, Atlanta ranked 29th in the majors with a collective .290 OBP from the No. 2 spot and used 12 different players in that role, with Adonis Garcia (.318 OBP in 217 plate appearances over 47 games) getting the brunt of the work.
Not much of a threat on the base paths -- Garcia had three stolen bases in 192 games -- Swanson could also provide added value in a spot where teams are putting some of their most viable bats. See the Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson, Dodgers' Corey Seager, Rays' Wil Myers and Cubs' Kris Bryant as proof.
If this is where Swanson is penciled in, it's worth understanding how much of a rarity it has been for a rookie to do some in this organization on a consistent basis. Just once has a Brave hit triple figures in gamed played hitting second: Jason Heyward in 2010.
Dale ZanineDale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
3. Who figures to see the most time behind Swanson?
In the last six seasons, no player with rookie status has played all 162 games, though last year's National League ROY came close with Seager playing in 157.
There hasn't been any public talk about how the Braves plan to manage Swanson's days off, at some point, someone else is going to be manning shortstop for this team.
The logical guy to point to is super utility man Sean Rodriguez, who last year played at first base, second base, third base and all three outfield spots for the Pirates. Of course, there is the potential that he could challenge for a starting role at either second or third, where Jace Peterson and Garcia are the incumbents.
It's second where Rodriguez showed his biggest worth last season with three defensive runs saved compared to one at first and in the outfield, minus-2 at third base and zero at shortstop.
With Garcia posting minus-7 DRS at third in '16 and Peterson at minus-6 at second, and given Rodriguez's presence at the plate (.270/.349/.510 last year), there's a strong possibility he does challenge one for the main role, though there's also the impending arrival of Ozzie Albies at second.
But in the interim Rodriguez figures to be the kind of bat and versatile fielder the Braves will work to use on an almost daily basis, including when Swanson is on the bench. Although if he does move primarily into the starting lineup, look to Peterson (330 minor league starts at shortstop) or Chase d'Arnaud (55 MLB games) to be the primary reserves.