SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Like W.C. Fields, Dansby Swanson would rather have been in Philadelphia. He left that city Friday morning to fly here, having been ferried from Phoenix to Philly on the Braves’ team charter Wednesday night just after he was informed of his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. And here he was, his famous hair (but no facial hair) on display in a cramped clubhouse beneath a stadium that seats 11,071.
Unfailingly affable since he was summoned to the majors in August, Swanson wasn’t in a gabby mood Friday. “I’d rather wait and talk when I get back to Atlanta,” he said, meaning Gwinnett’s Coolray Field, not Cobb’s SunTrust Park. A visitor who happened to be in the neighborhood said he couldn’t much blame him.
“Everything you’d ask,” Swanson said, “you probably know what my answer would be.”
That demotion is no fun? That he’s going to work his hardest to get him himself back to the bigs ASAP? Stuff like that, right?
“Don’t go putting words in my mouth,” Swanson said, almost smiling. Almost.
He entered this season as the favorite to win National League rookie of the year. By the All-Star break, he’d become the Braves’ sixth infielder, which nobody in this world saw coming. He hit .302 with an OPS of .803 in 38 big-league games last season; he hit .213 with an OPS of .599 this season. The convenient hook is to say the Braves rushed him – he’d had only 569 plate appearances in the minors, having skipped Triple-A altogether – but if they had, why didn’t he hit .213 last August/September?
In the cold light of hindsight, it was a mistake to lade so much promotional baggage on the shoulders of someone who technically was a rookie. Then again, the Braves haven’t had much to cheer of late – Freddie Freeman is the obvious exception – and Swanson not only was young and gifted, but also amiable and possessed of the world’s best hair. And, not incidentally, he grew up in the county where the Braves now play. Baseball is a business. Businesses promote themselves.
Swanson, it’s fair to say, wasn’t thrilled about his demotion. (Nobody ever is.) He can’t, however, complain overmuch. Among 165 qualifying MLB hitters, he ranked 162nd in OPS. Among shortstops, only two had more errors than his 14. Cruel as it sounds, the Face of the Franchise had become a substandard big-leaguer. When Brian Snitker made it clear last week that Swanson was no longer his everyday – or even his every-other-day – shortstop, the path to Triple-A had been cleared.
That road, however, can turn the other way. “It has happened to a ton of people,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill, a Brave of distinction in the giddy ’90s, said Friday. “He just needs to come here and get his swing going. We’re going to play him at short and some at second base and get him back into his comfort zone.”
Whoa. Second base? Yes, Berryhill said, and that has to be coming from higher up. (“Wherever they put me,” Swanson said, informed of those plans.)
It wasn’t so long ago that the Braves appeared to have decided that Swanson was their shortstop of the future, leaving Ozzie Albies to scoot over. Gwinnett now has both on its roster – and also the former big-leaguer Jace Peterson, whom the Braves envision as a utility type. Gwinnett’s middle infield is almost as crowded as Atlanta’s, which isn’t to suggest that Swanson will be the forgotten man.
Said Berryhill: “We all know he can play. I know they’re really high on Dansby. He’s a big part of this organization.”
He’s 23. He has been a professional for 24 months. He was the 1-1 pick in the 2015 draft. The talent hasn’t gone away, just the production. There are ways – at least the Braves hope there are – to correct that. The first way is to play every day, which wasn’t happening in the majors. It will happen with Gwinnett. Swanson might take some turns at a different position, but he’s not going to sit.
To the Braves, Swanson is too big to fail. Pitchers adjust to hitters, and hitters must recalibrate. Swanson has to prove he can handle the slider. For what it’s worth, he did hit .306 in June, suggesting he’d tweaked something. Then he hit .125 in July, which is why he reported for work Friday in Onondaga County, N.Y., and not Philadelphia, Pa.
As for the game itself: He started at shortstop, batted third and went 1-for-4 with a walk. The hit was an infield single to third base that might have been scored an error. He grounded into a double play with Albies and Ronald Acuna on base in the the first inning. He struck out with the same two aboard in the ninth. The guy who hit .213 in the majors exited Game 1 in Triple-A at .250.
But enough about that. Back to that flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia: That had to be, his visitor had suggested, pretty tough. “It was actually one of the best,” Swanson said. “A lot of good talks, a lot of good advice.”
Dansby Swanson wasn’t thrilled to be in Syracuse – only Jim Boeheim is ever thrilled to be in Syracuse – but this is where he needs to be. He needs to play. Shortstop or second base, it matters not. He just needs to play. And he will.
Further reading: Dansby Swanson is demoted to Gwinnett, and it needed to happen.
From last August: Tears in his eyes, Dansby Swanson brings hope.
From December 2015: The Atlanta Braves just made a tremendous trade.