This time a year ago, Dansby Swanson was in Double-A and was the Braves’ hottest commodity. When general manager John Coppolella would call (Team X) and say, “What would it take to get (Player Y)?,” the response would be, “Give us Swanson.” That would end the discussion.
On Monday, the Braves were to face the reigning World Series champs in a game, believe it or not, with a measure of playoff ramifications. Sean Rodriguez, once deemed out for the season, was in the starting eight. Brandon Phillips, who’ll probably be traded soon, was there, too. So was Johan Camargo, never considered one of the Braves’ loftier prospects.
Excluded: Dansby Swanson.
It marked the fourth time in nine games Swanson has sat behind Camargo, who’s hitting .333 and is two months older. It’s not as if the Face of the Franchise has been forgotten: He started the final two games of the Arizona series – the Diamondbacks being the team that drafted him No. 1 overall and, six months later, traded him – over the weekend. (He went 1-for-6 with two walks.) Still, this is becoming something of a trend.
(Update: Camargo would go 0-for-4, Rodriguez 0-for-3. Swanson was deployed only as pinch-runner in the ninth. The Braves lost to the Cubs 4-3.)
If we go on production, Swanson has done little this season to render himself indispensable. He has a Baseball-Reference WAR of 0.0. Among the 169 qualifying major-league hitters, he ranks 164th in OPS. (Jose Peraza, once also considered the Braves’ No. 1 prospect, is 165th.) Among shortstops, his 14 errors trail only the White Sox’s Tim Anderson, who has 25.
The convenient hook is to say he can’t handle the slider and is striking out too much. But his K-rate is down a tick from his seven-week turn in the majors last year – from 23.4 percent to 22.7. That he’s hitting .220 and not .302 is partly a function of BABIP (batting average on balls in play), and maybe we should have seen it coming. In his first blush as a big-leaguer, Swanson’s BABIP was .383, which sabermetric folks will tell you is the reddest flag east of Beijing. League average BABIP is usually .300, give or take.
The scary part: Swanson’s BABIP this year is .272, which isn’t great but shouldn’t be fall-off-the-cliff awful, which suggests he’s not just hitting in bad luck. Example: The difference in Freddie Freeman’s BABIP and his batting average is 18 percentage points; the difference is Swanson’s is 52. (Spoiler alert: The difference in Camargo’s is 86. It would be an upset if he’s hitting .333 on Aug. 17.)
Theories abound as to why Swanson’s Year 2 has been less filling than his seven-week Year 1. One is the slider. Another holds that he wasn’t quite ready for the majors, even though he sure looked it last year. Yet another posits that his talent level is closer to Jeff Blauser than Chipper Jones. Yet another insists that the Face of the Franchise stuff has put a load on him that nobody with 129 MLB at-bats could have shouldered. (Well, nobody except Mike Trout.)
Whatever the cause, the effect has been sobering: The key prospect in the Braves’ rebuild is sharing a position with a guy who’s outplaying him. Asked Monday about Swanson’s omission from his lineup, Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “We’re trying to put the best team out there we can on a given day.”
On this given Monday, that team didn’t include Swanson. Given his long history as a minor-league manager, Snitker knows well the vagaries of young talent. “I do talk to (Swanson) about it,” he said. “He’s fine. It’s part of the journey with young kids. Everybody has growing pains at the major-league level. We love the kid. He’s a big part of our future.”
Last week, Snitker was watching video of a big-league game from ancient times. (You know, like the ‘80s.) “I thought, ‘Those guys just had to worry about playing the game,” he said. “There was no social media back then.”
As for Camargo: “That’s what our game is about: You get a chance, you do good, you earn playing time.”
Last month, Coppolella said there was never a discussion of sending Swanson to Triple-A – a level at which he hasn’t played – when he started the season slowly. That season is 90 games old. Swanson has gotten no better. Might the Braves be rethinking?
Snitker on the possibility of demoting Swanson: “I don’t feel it right now.”
He also said this: “If guys go back, it’s not the end of the world. Some guys stay up here and fight through it.”
We can’t yet know what Swanson will do. At the moment, finding an open seat in this infield is tough. (Freeman, the sometimes third baseman, was at first base for Monday’s game against the lefty Jon Lester, Matt Adams taking a seat.) “A year ago we were looking for players,” Snitker said. “Right now we’ve got players.”
And no, Swanson isn’t apt to be traded because Johan Camargo is having a hot month. There’s a reason he was the 1-1 pick in 2015, a reason the Braves (and every other team) wanted him. If he’s known for any one thing, Coppolella is known for that massive deal with the D-backs. The man who traded for Dansby Swanson isn’t likely to become the man who traded away Dansby Swanson. The last guy to do that was Dave Stewart. He got fired.
From earlier today: Serious (and shocking) question: Are the Braves a playoff team?