Dansby Swanson is reestablishing his long-term promise
The Braves' drama-filled 2017 season continues.
Though out of playoff contention, the franchise delivered stunning moment after stunning moment this week by pulling together three walk-off wins in a single series for the first time in franchise history. The final victory, each coming against the visiting Miami Marlins, was sealed by backup outfielder Lane Adams' 11th-inning home run on Sunday evening. Here are three observations from a week in which young contributors kept dominating:
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1. Dansby Swanson keeps walking the walk
In terms of wins above replacement, the Braves rank in MLB’s lower third at three positions: Third base, right field and left field. With first base and center field in capable hands and a Tyler Flowers-led catching platoon performing well above expectations yet again, that leaves the promising middle-infield combination of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies to answer the question of whether the Braves are a couple position players away from contending … or a handful.
Albies’ first 38 games have done nothing to tarnish his prospect luster, but it is Swanson’s return to form that has truly rekindled the faith that Atlanta is inching closer to contention.
Over the past 30 days, he’s produced like one of the best players in baseball. His on-base percentage over this final stretch of the campaign sat directly behind Kris Bryant and he was tied with Joey Votto in WAR entering Sunday's action — and while small-sample stars come in all shapes and sizes over the course of a season, it’s impossible to ignore a 65-grade prospect (on the 20-80 scouting scale) finally producing like a 65-grade prospect. If Swanson had hit anywhere near this level for the entire season, Cody Bellinger would not be the runaway NL Rookie of the Year favorite.
Of course, “hit” is a dubious operative word here, because while Swanson is certainly putting the bat to the ball since his return it’s his plate discipline that is primarily responsible for his skyrocketing OBP. He's walking more than he's striking out. He’s tied for the seventh-most walks in baseball since Aug. 9. In fact, even when factoring in his full-season valleys, he still finds himself in impressive company in regards to rookie walk rates (min. 300 plate appearances):
Aaron Judge: 17.8
Dansby Swanson: 11.6
Andrew Benintendi: 10.6
Josh Bell: 10.6
Cody Bellinger: 10.5
It’s worth noting that Judge and Swanson are tied with 10 intentional walks for different reasons — opposing pitchers avoiding Judge’s long-ball potential vs. bypassing Swanson, who has hit in the 8th hole for most of the season, to get to a Braves pitcher — but, for a player who does strike fear like the other 25-homer threats listed above, it’s a promising nod to discipline. Among rookies with at least 500 plate appearances since 2010, Swanson's current career walk rate would rank only behind Judge, Bell, Joc Pederson, Jason Heyward, Ike Davis and Kris Bryant
Even factoring in Swanson's well-publicized struggles against sliders, he’s still swinging at just 27.6 percent of pitches he sees outside the zone. All told, that’s a similar swing profile to Logan Morrison and Cody Bellinger this season with higher contact rates, and once the quality of that contact (and his BABIP) rose the numbers have followed.
“I think being able to believe in what you’re trying to do is probably the biggest thing just because you may be doing the right thing but if you’re not truly believe in that then obviously the results aren’t going to come like you’d like," the 2015 No. 1 overall pick said. "I think that’s just probably the biggest thing is just trusting what I do and trusting my ability. That’s been paying a lot of dividends for me.”
Perhaps the biggest difference for the 23-year-old Vanderbilt product? His numbers in two-strike situations:
Since Return: 60 plate appearances, .300/.417/.440, 131 wRC+
Every rebuild relies on countless variables to fall into place. Atlanta’s version is no different. The franchise is banking on some combination of their pitching prospects to hit along with Swanson, Albies, Ronald Acuña and/or other young position players panning out and helping to form a youthful foundation around Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte.
If only for a brief stretch, Dansby Swanson is walking the walk.
2. Ronald Acuña postseason award sweep offers reminder of front office’s pressing offseason decision
The individual accolades arrived in waves.
First, Ronald Acuña was named USA Today’s Minor League Player of the Year. Then MLB Pipeline tabbed him as its 2017 Hitter of the Year. Then Baseball America showed up to the party by naming the hyped outfield prospect as its own Minor League Player of the Year and new cover star — touting him as “The Prodigy.” (Least surprising of all, Acuña headlined FOX Sports South’s own 2017 All-Prospect Team.)
The news, as always, arrives just a couple weeks from the end of the regular season, which should once again draw attention to the Braves’ offseason decisions regarding their corner outfield spots. As mentioned above, the Braves are receiving diminishing returns from their left- and right-field positions with approximately $30 million owed to Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis next season.
Atlanta could open the 2018 campaign with the familiar Kemp-Inciarte-Markakis trio and delay the clock on baseball’s potential No. 1 prospect, but that’s a short-term solution, especially considering Acuña projects to surpass the value of either veteran upon arrival. He’s MLB-ready right now. (And that’s nothing to scoff at for a team eyeing playoff contention.)
The franchise could give Acuña the Andruw Jones Treatment, starting him regularly as a fourth outfielder in advantageous matchups, but the fact of the matter is the franchise finds itself in a much different situation this time around. Jones broke into an outfield featuring 2.5-plus WAR players in Marquis Grissom, Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Kenny Lofton and Michael Tucker across the 1996 and 1997 seasons. Playing time was precious and hard-earned; he was not the clear-cut best option right out of the gate for the perennial World Series threats. That will not be the case in 2018.
The Braves need to improve dramatically at multiple positions and Acuña provides the clearest option in right field. If Atlanta is going to name the teenage phenom an everyday player by early 2018, it will likely need to clear space this winter.
As this column has mentioned before, utilizing the savings from the Jaime Garcia and Sean Rodriguez trades by helping a buyer cover the remaining salary due to either Markakis or (less likely) Kemp could be the organization's best bet. Besides, even if the Braves want to delay Acuña's clock, the emergence of the athletic Lane Adams (122 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances) along with utiity options Danny Santana, Jace Peterson and Johan Camargo means the team can piece together similar — or better — production without a prohibitive salary standing in the star prospect's path.
Acuña’s postseason awards run provides another reminder that decision time is fast approaching.
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3. Braves receiving better production from younger third-base options
Following virtually every front-office decision to trade a productive player — regardless of age, contract situation, positional depth, playing time concerns or all of the above — a backlash ensues. Why move someone playing well? Why now? Why not bring that veteran player back next season?
Such was the case with Brandon Phillips, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels hours before the waiver trade deadline. Phillips was an excellent addition for Atlanta at the bargain-basement price of $1 million, hitting .291/.329/.423 at second and third base before the move. President of baseball operations John Hart even mentioned bringing the vet back for his age-37 season — which still appears to be an unlikely epilogue to the franchise’s Phillips chapter.
One reason for that unlikely follow-up: Johan Camargo and Rio Ruiz are showing they can put up better numbers at a lower price with higher upside.
In the 10 games since Ruiz's September call-up, with most of their playing time coming from the third-base spot, the two rookies have combined for 15 hits, two home runs, two doubles, 12 RBI, five runs and three walks.
With a relatively weak free-agent market at the third-base position, this September audition could help decide the hot corner situation entering the 2018 season. At this rate — considering the revolving door since Chipper Jones’ retirement — the Braves’ in-house options should provide improvements at third base regardless.