He didn’t have a great day at the plate in Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game in San Diego, but Dansby Swanson impressed in the field and certainly in the clubhouse, where other top-prospect teammates on the U.S.A. squad gravitated to him much as they have in the Braves minor league system.
That’s one of the intangibles that Swanson has -- the personality and natural leadership qualities, that perhaps set him apart from so many other highly skilled young players. Teams want to, need to. feel good about the players they are building around, the ones they view as franchise cornerstones, and with Swanson, 22, the Braves are very comfortable in that regard. Whenever they determine he’s ready physically for the big leagues, they are confident he will be ready mentally.
Because they’re certain he already is.
“Maturity’s not going to be an issue,” said retired Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, a future Hall of Famer and Braves special assistant in baseball operations, and another guy that no one in the organization ever worried about as far as confidence was concerned. “When his time comes, you’re not going to have to worry about that. They’re not gonna have to worry about if he’s overmatched; he’s not going to get himself into a mental funk. Seems like he has his head on right.”
Chipper spent time with Swanson on several occasions during spring training, both when Swanson and fellow top prospect and double-play partner Ozzie Albies were still in major league camp and after the two got sent down together to minor league camp.
He loves Albies and all that the undersized 19-year-old dynamo brings to the table, but since Swanson was at the Futures Game this year and Albies wasn’t – he was in last year’s game; don’t ask me why he wasn’t selected again this year because I don’t understand it myself – I confined my discussion with Chipper mostly to Swanson and to the Swanson-Albies relationship.
“Obviously going to Vanderbilt, smart kid,” Chipper said of Swanson, the former Marietta High star who went on to excel for three seasons at Vandy. “He was impressive (this spring). The one thing that stood out to me, didn’t matter if he as playing second base or shortstop, just wanted to be out there playing. And it didn’t matter who was on the mound, he wasn’t going to be intimidated."
Former Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Swanson and Albies alternate between shortstop and second base in spring training, and played them together every time they were in the lineup, which was frequently during Grapefruit League games before the pair got sent down when the Braves began to give more innings to projected Opening Day roster players.
Within the first week of spring training, Albies was getting rides to the ballpark daily with Swanson. The two became fast friends.
“That was kind of the most impressive thing for me -- whenever I saw one of them, I saw the other,” Chipper said. “And you’re talking about a 22-year-old kid and a 19-year old kid, one from Curacao and one from Georgia. I don’t know, I thought it was very impressive that these guys took to each other the way they did. It’s almost like they know that they’re going to be attached at the hip from now until their days in Atlanta are done.
“It was just really refreshing to see two guys, especially a second base-shortstop combination, that hit it off. They’re really complentary of each other.”
Talking to Swanson about Albies, it’s immediately apparent how much Swanson likes, admires and respects the kid.
“Ozzie is the man,” Swanson said, smiling before batting practice Sunday at Petco Park. “He’s awesome. And he’s a great player.”
Swanson and Albies developed an immediate bond in spring training, and Swanson was thrilled when they became teammates again at the end of June when Albies was sent back from Triple-A to Double-A Mississippi. Albies was sent down not as a demotion, but so he could play alongside Swanson again as the two continue working toward the inevitable promotion to the big leagues.
If that doesn’t come before September, then it likely will after rosters can be expanded in September, at least to give Swanson and Albies a little taste of the majors before next season, when it’s possible they’ll be in the Opening Day lineup at the new ballpark.
The Braves had them start at different levels this season, because they wanted each to continue playing shortstop while team officials continued to make a final determination about who should move to second base. Also, there was the fact that Albies, who signed at 16, had already played parts of two minor league seasons before this year, hitting .364 with an .891 OPS in rookie ball in 2014 and .310 with a .711 OPS as an 18-year-old playing at Single-A Rome in 2015.
Swanson had played just 22 games of rookie ball before this season, after being selected with the first overall pick of the 2015 draft by Arizona and having his minor league debut delayed when he was hit in the face by a fellow Diamondbacks prospect’s fastball during a simulated game.
Traded to the Braves in December as part of the Shelby Miller deal – which could go down as one of the more one-sided in recent memory – Swanson got over the shock of being traded so soon after being the top pick, and got to the task at hand of making his way through the Braves organization to the big leagues.
In the current issue of Baseball America, a midseason top-50 overall prospect list has Swanson at No. 7 – up from 17th in BA’s preseason list – and Albies at No. 17, a big jump from 63rd in the preseason list.
Swanson hasn’t excelled quite like Albies this season, but it’s not at all uncommon for prospects, even 22-year-old elite prospects, to have highs and lows in their first full season in the minor leagues. There are big differences in the daily grind of minor league ball compared to college ball, even at a school that plays in a top-level conference like the SEC and has such demanding academic requirements as Vanderbilt.
Swanson tore it up at high-A Carolina, batting .333 with a .967 OPS in 21 games, but he’s hit a modest .265 with a .752 OPS in 60 games in Double-A and conceded to feeling very fatigued before the Double-A All-Star break: In his last 12 games before that break, Swanson hit .146 (7-for-48) with a .470 OBP.
In his first 13 games after the break he hit .367 (18-for-49) with a .959 OPS, then went to San Diego for the Futures Game.
Once the Braves made the decision that Albies would be the one to move from shortstop to second base, Swanson felt more at ease. And since Albies was sent to Double-A to play alongside Swanson for the first time since spring training, the two have thrived in the lineup together and shown flashes of their huge potential as a keystone combination at short and second.
“I don’t know what the word is. I don’t know if it’s ‘relief’ or what it may be,” Swanson said. “But it’s just kind of like the comfort (of knowing), Ok, this is what’s going to happen and we’re going to go and do it. Have fun doing it, learn a lot together, try and build that chemistry, that bond, whatever we need to have. We kind of already naturally have it, just because we enjoy being around one another, but being able to further build that relationship is important.”
Said Chipper, “That was something I saw at spring training from the very beginning, that Dansby was probably the more polished shortstop, having three years of college under his belt, and Ozzie was the best second baseman. Now you can put these two guys together whether it’s at Double-A or Triple-A and let them rise up the ranks till their ready for the big time, hopefully next spring training.”
Chipper added, “It’s good that their two best position players in the minors No.1, get along, and No. 2, know what their roles are and are able to cultivate that relationship in the minors for a good year-plus before they bust on the scene.”
Swanson said something to me before the Futures Game that really got my attention, something that I was still thinking about 15 minutes after he left the clubhouse. I knew from talking to him at spring training that he got “got it,” and that he was more mature than most rookies, due to age, three years of college, all that. But he said something in San Diego that made me think there was more to it than must maturity, that he was an example of a player whose “mental makeup” truly was exceptional, unlike some young players you hear team officials say that about when it’s evident they really just hope said player is or will become that. Swanson is that.
Here’s what he said that convinced me, when he was asked about his and the team’s future and whether he was thinking about it more now that he was closer to reaching the big leagues.
“You’re building to be successful in the future,” he said. “So whenever it’s right in front of you, it’s obviously hard to not look ahead and say, this is what it could be like. But with that said, it can only be like that if you take care of what’s going on right here in front of you. The biggest thing is, everybody’s just trying to take care of their part, and to build this culture and an atmosphere in which winning is expected and being a good teammate is something that means a lot and has a lot of value.”
I mean, come on, folks. That’s like a script from the front office. Only it wasn’t a script. That’s just Swanson talking. That’s what he believes.
I asked Chipper about that, about Swanson’s comment on being a good teammate and establishing a winning culture in the minor leagues and throughout the organization.
“It starts with the direction of the organization, but you have to have players who are willing to accept that and buy in,” Chipper said. “Having an older kid like him at that level certainly helps. I know I can only liken it to what we did when I was coming up -- we were expected to be in the playoffs and compete for a league championship everywhere we went.
“Getting that ingrained in their heads at the minor league level is an awfully good start, so when they get to the big leagues it’s expected of them.”
Just one other thing: Some people can’t resist comparing Swanson to Chipper, because both were No. 1 overall draft picks, both as shortstops, and because both had some serious physical tools and just played the game with a flair that made them stand out on the field against most competition in high school and, in Swanson’s case, in college. They both had undeniable swagger, too, and both are good-looking guys that fans fawn over.
But let’s stop the comparisons at about that point, folks. Because they are different players. Jones became one of the top three or four switch-hitters in history – I’d put him second behind Mickey Mantle as far as overall average-and-power switch hitters -- and one of the five greatest third basemen. He's a lock to be a first-ball Hall of Famer in the Class of 2018.
“I think it’s unfair (to compare),” Chipper said. “I’d like to see people let him carve out his own niche, don’t put any expectations on him. This kid could be anything from a Brandon Crawford shortstop to a Derek Jeter. This kid knows how to play the game. He’s not going to hit 30, 40 homers a year, so don’t put those kind of expectations on him. What he is going to do is help you win 95-100 games. That’s the most important thing – he’s a winner and the Braves are very lucky to have him.”
• Let's close with a little Springsteen. Always loved this one from the Tunnel of Love album in '87.
"TUNNEL OF LOVE" by Bruce Springsteen
Fat man sitting on a little stool
Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you
Hands me the ticket smiles and whispers good luck
Cuddle up angel cuddle up my little dove
We'll ride down baby into this tunnel of love
I can feel the soft silk of your blouse
And them soft thrills in our little fun house
Then the lights go out and it's just the three of us
You me and all that stuff we're so scared of
Gotta ride down baby into this tunnel of love
There's a crazy mirror showing us both in 5-D
I'm laughing at you you're laughing at me
There's a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It's easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love
It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above
if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love