Dansby Swanson era begins tonight in Atlanta
The Braves’ latest Golden Child – this one adopted, but nonetheless beloved – arrives tonight, and a recently title-starved baseball town turns its anticipation and hopes to you, Dansby Swanson.
But please, Braves Country, I implore you, don’t make too much of Dansby’s Debut.
Or the next few weeks, for that matter.
Maybe the former Marietta High, the handsome kid with the great hair and ready smile, not to mention the national championship, Golden Spikes and College World Series MVP awards at Vanderbilt, will meet or surpass all expectations immediately upon arrival when he starts Wednesday night at shortstop for the Braves against the Minnesota Twins.
But given how extreme those expectations are with some folks for him or anyone else drafted so highly – he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who foolishly traded him to the Braves along with Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair for Shelby Miller – and written about so much.
Just keep in mind, he’s 22; he’s only played 127 professional games including 84 above Single-A and none in Triple-A; he’s not a big power hitter or base stealer; he was hitting .261 with a .342 OBP, 26 extra-base hits (five triples, six homers) and a .745 OPS in 84 games at Double-A Mississippi, where the Braves would’ve kept him for at least another couple of weeks if they hadn’t traded Erick Aybar on Tuesday.
But they did trade Aybar, and that created an opening, and here we go. Let the Dansby Era, as it were, begin. (Although to me, when second baseman Ozzie Albies gets here, him and Swanson together in the middle infield will be the real beginning of what should be a memorable era of Braves baseball. The Ozzie and Dansby Show, now that’s gonna be must-see viewing.)
About Swanson: He does just about everything really well, on both sides of the ball. But don’t expect him to wow you with huge power or blazing speed. He’s got good power and he’s a great base runner, but this is not a potential 30-30 (homers and stolen bases) type of player, if that’s what you’re expecting.
So don’t start to compare him to the last guy who debut for the Braves after being the No. 1 overall selection in the draft, Chipper Jones.
“I think it’s unfair (to compare them),” said Chipper Jones himself, when I talked to the future first-ballot Hall of Famer last month about Swanson. “I’d like to see people let him carve out his own niche, don’t put any expectatons 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 luck to have him.”
Brandon Crawford or Derek Jeter? That’s quite a range.
I asked Chipper about the power projection.
“I never thought a guy like Brandon Crawford would (hit a lot of homers) either,” Jones said of the Giants shortstop, who hit a career-high 21 homers last year in his fourth full season, at age 28, and won his first All-Star recognition and first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. “But if I were to compare Dansby to anybody, it’d be a guy like Crawford.”
The two overall No. 1 draft selections to debut for the Atlanta Braves were Bob Horner and Chipper, whose careers couldn’t have been much more different after their initial big splashes as rookies.
Horner went straight from the 1978 draft out of Arizona State to his major league debut on June 16, 1978 – directly to the majors, not even one minor league game – and homered in his first professional at-bat at age 20, nearly two months shy of his 21st birthday.
He had 23 homers, 63 RBIs and an .852 OPS in 89 games to win the NL Rookie of the Year award over a guy named Ozzie Smith.
Chipper was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1995 behind the Dodgers’ 26-year-old Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo.
Chipper came up as a shortstop and got in eight games coming off the bench (no starts) during a September 1993 callup at age 21, going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk, all but one of those plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. The following season was to be his highly anticipated rookie year, but he blew out his knee at spring training and missed all of that 1994 season.
So his rookie year was pushed back to 1995, when he turned 23 in April and hit .265 with 23 homers, 86 RBIs and 602 plate appearances in 140 games and finished 18th in the National League MVP balloting in a season that started late due to the lingering strike (which shortened both the ‘94 and ’95 seasons).
Chipper had a .353 OBP and .450 slugging percentage in that rookie season with 73 walks and 99 strikeouts, the highest K total of his career (he finished his career with 1,512 walks and 1,409 strikeouts).
Throw out the September call-up and Chipper went 8-for-25 (.320) in the first seven games of the 1995 season with two doubles, six RBIs, six walks, four strikeouts and a .452 OBP. He started those seven games at shortstop – the Braves won six of the seven – and then moved to left field, where he started the next 13 games before moving back to third base, where he stayed for the rest of the season.
The next season, 1996, Braves outfield prospect Jermaine Dye debuted in May and homered in his first major leage at-bat, at age 22. He would go on to hit .281 with 12 homers and a .763 OPS and finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting, with another Dodger, Todd Hollandsworth, winning the award ahead of a guy I was covering as a Marlins beat writer at the time, shorststop Edgar Renteria.
In March 1997, Dye was traded along with Jamie Walker to the Royals for Keith Lockhart and Michael Tucker.
Horner and Dye were the only two Atlanta-era Braves to homer in their first major league at-bats until center fielder Jordan Schafer did it in the 2009 opener at Philadelphia. Schafer went 8-for-19 with two doubles and two homers in his first five games that season, then 7-for-40 with 18 strikeouts and no RBIs in his next 13 games, broke a bone in his hand and was never quite the same as he’d been that first week in the bigs.
After a string injuries and mediocre performances in parts of six seasons with three major league teams — .228 career average and .615 OPS – Schafer is now in Double-A with the Dodgers trying to make it as a pitcher.
Which brings us to Jason Heyward, the last Braves prospect who caused quite as much stir and anticipation coming into his major league debut as has Swanson since being traded from the Diamondbacks.
A year after Schafer homered in his first major league at-bat, Heyward did it, too, in 2010. Only this time it was a much bigger event – on Opening Day in Atlanta, after Heyward had caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron in what many of us viewed as a sort of passing of the torch to the next Golden Child of the Braves – and with the greatest Brave of all tossing a pitch to the franchise’s next great black prospect.
Heyward had a great rookie year despite a midseason thumb injury that reduced his power and landed him on the DL. He was voted to the All-Star team – had to miss it because of the injury — and hit .277 with 29 doubles, five triples, 18 homers, 72 RBIs, and a robust .393 OBP and .456 slugging percentage in 142 games.
He was NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Buster Posey and finished 20th in the MVP balloting. But here’s the thing: That .393 OBP as a rookie is 42 points higher than Heyward has posted in any season since. His .849 OPS that season also remains a career high, with only one .800 OPS in six seasons since and a career-low .616 currently with the Cubs. He’s had one season with as many as 15 homers since his rookie year.
Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Heyward, from McDonough just south of Atlanta, were the last great local prospects to reach the majors with the Braves until Swanson, the pride of Marietta High School before he went on to become a college All-American at Vanderbilt.
Swanson was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft and his pal and SEC rival shortstop Alex Bregnan was the No. 2 pick in that draft out of LSU, selected by the Astros. Bregnan was called up last month, and with Swanson’s arrival they become the fastest No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks to reach the majors since Alex Rodriguez and Darren Dreifort from the 1993 draft.
Bregman, also 22, forced the Astros’ hand by producing dominant statistics in the minors this season, batting .306 with 20 homers and a .986 OPS in 80 games combined in Double-A and Triple-A.
Thrust into a different situation than Swanson enters – with the Astros above .500 and fighting for a playoff spot – Bregman looked a bit overwhelmed initially, going 2-for-38 with no extra-base hits or RBIs in his first 10 games. He’s 7-for-44 with five doubles and a homer in 10 games since then, batting .183 with 22 strikeouts and seven walks in 90 plate appearances.
So you see, even the guys who look entirely ready, who’ve been playing like men among boys in the minors, can suddenly be humbled and made to look a bit lost initially in the major leagues. Then again, some of them look quite the opposite, even homering in their first at-bat on the big stage.
You just never know what’s going to happen. But what we do know is that too much shouldn’t be made of it, one way or another. Whether Swanson homers tonight, goes 3-for-4, or goes 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. It’s one game under circumstances that we just don’t know how a player will respond to, and circumstances he’ll never face again after he gets the first one out of the way.
Adrenaline can do strange things. Wonderful things, or quite the opposite. And the opposing pitcher also has plenty to say about how a kid’s debut goes.
So enjoy Dansby’s debut tonight. Remember how he smiles and the wave of applause that will surely greet the local kid when he’s introduced and steps up to the plate.
But don’t project much from it, good, bad or indifferent. It’s one game. He’ll probably play at least 1,500 more in his career or maybe even 2,498 more if he’s like Chipper and goes 19 seasons.
Oops, there I go. Comparing him to Chipper. Don’t do that, folks.
Enjoy the game.