Can Swanson & Albies Save Atlanta?
Batman and Robin. Peanut butter and Jelly. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant (Err, wait, bad example. Nevermind). It’s rare to get the opportunity to see two separate pieces grow together to form a dynamic duo. It’s probably even less likely to see in baseball, as teams rarely have both a need and the time to allow prospects to develop at the same time and level. While it isn’t the norm, this is exactly what the Braves are doing with Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves
After being the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, Swanson hit the ground running, by, well, hitting. In his first taste of pro ball he put up an impressive line of .289/.394/.482 at Low-A Hillsboro. Perhaps even more impressive, Swanson walked as much as he struck out (14.1 percent, each), albeit in a small sample of 99 plate appearances. His approach at the plate drew raves, as well as his ability to play an above average shortstop. His future, not to mention the future of the Diamondback’s middle infield, looked bright.
Then, the trade happened.
You know THE trade. The Braves fleeced negotiated with the D-backs and managed to finagle Swanson as part of a package for Shelby Miller. As we all know, the trade hasn’t worked out too well for Arizona. Entering the 2016 season, Swanson was ranked as highly as the eighth best prospect (MLB.com) in all of baseball. He didn’t disappoint. Starting in High-A Carolina, Swanson proceeded to hit .333 with a .965 OPS, striking out only 13 times compared to 15 walks. Even though he only homered once, he was a doubles machine, smacking 12 in 93 plate appearances. While he hasn’t been known as a speedster, he even chipped in seven stolen bases in eight attempts, for good measure.
Swanson was promoted to Double-A Mississippi in late April, subsequently homering in his first game. He has struggled a bit since, and by struggled, that really just means he has been decent, and not otherworldly at the plate. In 309 plate appearances, Swanson has hit .259/.340/.409. He has even unlocked a little bit of power, launching seven homers to go along with stellar defense at short. His 9.4 percent walk rate ranks among the top in the Southern League. His strikeout rate has increased to 18.4 percent, most likely due to the jump in competition, however this number still is better than league average. By limiting whiffs, Swanson has a better chance to provide exceptional batting averages moving forward.
There aren’t a ton of questions surrounding Swanson’s game. Perhaps the only real lingering doubt is whether he possesses that “superstar” potential a la some other first overall picks such as, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa or Stephen Strasburg. There have even been rumblings that this is one of the rationales that the Diamondbacks used to justify their trade. And to be honest, the jury is still out. Thus far, Swanson has shown a great approach at the plate, but hasn’t hit for the power typically associated with that franchise cornerstone type player. That’s not all bad, though. Even though he may not evolve into that kind of player, Swanson’s downside appears to be a solid, above average regular, that could even see a few All-Star Games and make Braves fans forget all about that Simmons guy with a funny first name.
It is a golden age for young shortstops in the big leagues. However several of the big names, Correa, Seager, Bogaerts, etc. have all been projected to transition to third base, or another position due to size or range. Not Swanson. Swanson is a no doubt shortstop with the ability to hold down the position for the Braves for the next decade. Oh, and don’t forget about that hair. Swanson has great hair. Like, really, really great hair. That should count for something.
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves
Before the trade to end all trades, Ozzie Albies was tapped as the future shortstop in the Braves’ organization. First things first, Albies is fast. It’s plus speed in tandem with a contact oriented approach at the plate that have helped him become one of the best prospects in the game. Once Swanson was added to the fold, questions started to arise surrounding Albies’s future position. While it was an interesting topic of conversation, there is never a problem of having too many good young players that can handle shortstop. It was the ultimate “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” situation.
The Curacao native made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2014 and immediately dominated his time on two of the Braves’ rookie league teams, hitting .364/.446/.444 in 239 plate appearances. The speed was on display, as he swiped 22 bases in 27 attempts. He also walked more than he struck out, a skill tailor-made for speedsters, and one Billy Hamilton would give up his left arm to possess (although that would present a whole other batch of issues, but you know what I meant). Albies was promoted to the Sally League for 2015 and continued to display elite contact rates, hitting .310/.368/.404. He stole 29 bases at a 78 percent clip, and carried an above average walk rate of 8.2 percent. Perhaps most importantly, he only struck out in 12.8 percent of plate appearances, a crucial skill for speedy contact hitters devoid of power, and a good sign that his approach translated to higher levels of competition.
As a 19-year-old, Albies drew absolutely rave reviews in Braves spring-training camp. Typically you can take those raves with a grain of salt, sort of like the “best shape of my life” claims. However Albies squashed any hesitation immediately, by flourishing in his stint in Double-A Mississippi, hitting .369 with 10 walks and 13 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances. The hot start earned him a quick promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett, however his hot bat did not make the same trip. In two months and 247 plate appearances, Albies slashed .248/.307/.351. His .290 BABIP seems to point to a bit of bad luck for a player with his speed and contact rates, but it doesn’t entirely justify such poor numbers. Albies did manage to steal nine bases in 13 attempts, and his 15.8 percent strikeout rate still indicated that all was not lost. Another interesting note on Albies’s Triple A stint is that the Braves finally pulled the trigger on switching him to second base.
On June 30, Albies was sent back down to Double-A. While being sent down always seems to reek of demotion, this situation was different. Albies was being sent down to play second base alongside Swanson, giving them the opportunity to grow as the Braves’ double play tandem of the future. Whether it was repeating the level or the comfort in understanding the organization’s plan, Albies immediately showed why he’s an important part of the rebuild in Atlanta. Upon his pairing with Swanson, Albies has slashed .370/.439/.500 in 114 plate appearances again pairing above average patience with elite contact rates (8.8 percent walks and 11.4 percent strikeouts).
If Albies can manage to translate his speed and ability to make lots of contact while also getting on base via walks, he has the chance to be a pretty special player at the big-league level. Further, now that he and Swanson seem to be on the same development path, the Braves could have solidified their middle infield and top of the lineup for the next decade. After a stretch of terrible, terrible baseball, good times could be headed to Atlanta, and they could get there in the form of a Swanson to Albies double play combination, as soon as the spring of 2017.