The 2021 season has featured its share of turmoil for the Braves. There’s no questioning that. However, once you get past the unfortunate injuries and the disappointing performance of the team overall, there’s at least one takeaway we should all feel good about: Dansby Swanson is Atlanta’s shortstop… now AND for the future.
For the second season in a row, the 27-year-old Swanson is among the ten-best players at his position, coming off a shortened 2020 campaign in which he finished fifth among MLB shortstops in fWAR. Now into the back-half of his second arbitration season, the Braves should really start considering a contract extension for Swanson.
It’s pretty amazing. If you recall; it wasn’t that long ago that most of us were wishing the team would find itself a new shortstop. Just four years ago, in his first full big league season, Swanson struggled to perform at even a remotely average level with the bat, primarily due to his consistent struggles versus the breaking ball. In 2017 and ’18 combined, the Atlanta shortstop managed just a .203 wOBA against all breaking balls, and overall, his 86 wRC+ for those two seasons was far from ideal. Sure, Swanson was a strong defender at one of the most critical positions on the field; and yes, he had his stretches of good hitting. But there was always this thought that the Braves could do better.
However, during the 2020 campaign, Swanson’s results against non-fastballs, particularly breaking balls, began to improve. Playing in all 60 games last year, the former first-overall pick posted a much more respectable .250 wOBA against breaking pitches and ended the year with an above-average 116 wRC+. Those strides against curveballs and sliders has only continued in 2021, where Swanson’s current wOBA sits at .268 in 2021, to go with a career-high five home runs.
Then, there’s his play over the last month or so. Other than franchise player Freddie Freeman, Swanson is second among Braves position-players in fWAR since July 3, with 1.6 WAR (just 0.1 less than Freeman). In the 30 games the shortstop has played in during that stretch, he’s slashing .325/.372/.600 with seven homers and 25 RBI, good for a 155 wRC+. In his last six games, Swanson is 11 for 25 (.440 AVG). If the last 170-ish games is any indication, it certainly seems that this new type of Swanson is sustainable. Which brings us to the aforementioned extension…
Swanson has been good over the last 1 1/2 seasons, but he still isn’t on the same level as some of the top-tier shortstops in the league, featuring guys like Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts and Marcus Semien — nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, on FanGraphs WAR leaderboard from 2017-21. Now over that particular span, Swanson wouldn’t even be included in the second group either. But when you look at the top 15 or so shortstops from 2018-21, that’s where he begins to become part of the discussion.
Since the 2018 campaign, Swanson’s 7.5 fWAR ranks 13th in MLB among shortstops, and though that figure is quite a big difference from… say… tenth-ranked Carlos Correa (9.6 WAR), it’s still the production of a player that’s among some of the best in the game at his position.
So the top side of a potential extension would be in neighborhood of something like what Bogaerts received from Boston back in 2019 — a six-year, $120-million deal. At the time, he was roughly a year younger than Swanson, though, AND he obviously played for a team much more willing to spend. If the Braves have any plans of locking up Freeman long-term… paying Swanson a $20-million salary probably isn’t a realistic option.
However, there is a potential comparison that would make sense for both sides, and it’s an extension the Braves have already handed out to a former shortstop. Back in February of 2014, it appeared Atlanta was locking up Andrelton Simmons when the team gave him — along with reliever Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Freeman — a long-term extension. The deal for Simmons was for seven years and $58 million and its AAV was structured to escalate each season, topping out at $15 million in 2020.
Simmons’ 2014 extension
- 2014 — $1 million
- 2015 — $3 million
- 2016 — $6 million
- 2017 — $8 million
- 2018 — $11 million
- 2019 — $13 million
- 2020 — $15 million
Now, Simmons was still making the league-minimum at the time of his extension, where Swanson has somewhat enjoyed the pay-raises that have come with arbitration (he’s earning a $6-million salary this season). But still, even if Atlanta gave Swanson the exact same deal, the shortstop’s AAV would instantly increase by over $2 million, not counting the aforementioned escalators that would more than double his present salary by the time he reached the last couple years of the contract. Swanson is in line to make more money through arbitration, regardless, but like all team-friendly extensions, he would sacrifice a bit of money for the luxury of knowing where he’ll be for the next seven seasons. With the Braves now three years into contention mode, perhaps the guarantee of playing for a competitive team is worth the commitment.
Who knows what Anthopoulos and the Braves decide to do this coming offseason. With one more controlled-season on the books for Swanson, maybe the team waits until the end of 2022 to make sure its shortstop’s strides on offense are real. But from a future payroll standpoint; if Atlanta could persuade Swanson to settle for a Simmons-like contract extension this winter, Anthopoulos would be crazy not to lock him up. With what he’s done with the bat last season and during this one, I think it’s fair to say that Swanson has earned himself a long-term investment from the Braves.
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