Dansby Swanson Rising from No. 1 Overall Pick Bust to Potential Superstar

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterApril 25, 2019

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 7: Dansby Swanson #7 of the Atlanta Braves celebrates after knocking in the game-winning run in the ninth inning against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park on April 7, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The night he was traded to his hometown team, Dansby Swanson needed time to process what had just happened. He wasn't sure what to think. He wasn't sure what to say.

He just wanted to go shoot hoops. So he did.

Way back on that December night in 2015, Swanson found someone to let him into the gymnasium at Vanderbilt University. All by himself, he fired up shot after shot.

"I told myself not to think about [the trade] for a week or a week-and-a-half," Swanson said later.

He needed time to process what had just happened, and it turned out it would take even more time for Swanson to become the type of player the Braves thought they were getting. But the news now, a month into the 2019 season, is that Swanson has become that player. He's the steady shortstop and offensive force who can be key on a Braves team that won the National League East last year and is right back in the middle of the race this year.

He makes big plays and gets big hits, and his 21 RBI through Wednesday night are the most of any shortstop in the big leagues.

"This is the Dansby Swanson you've waited for," read a recent headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Swanson could be a "Derek Jeter-type of hitter," Braves Hall of Famer Chipper Jones told The Athletic.

There were high hopes when the Diamondbacks made Swanson the top draft pick in 2015.
There were high hopes when the Diamondbacks made Swanson the top draft pick in 2015.Norm Hall/Getty Images

He may never hit enough to fully justify the Diamondbacks' decision to make him the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, not when Alex Bregman was the second player picked. He'll need more than a good few months to live up to the hype the Braves' marketing staff heaped on him in the winter of 2016-17, when a team desperate for stars decided a hometown kid who had hit .302 in his first 38 major league games might help them sell a few more tickets.

Swanson hadn't yet done enough to justify having his face on billboards in Atlanta, and he wasn't ready to handle all that came with it. He was hitting .213 with a .599 OPS when the Braves finally sent him to the minor leagues in late July 2017, and while he was a little better when he returned, it was still a disappointing season.

Last year wasn't great, either, except that the Braves were winning and the presence of young stars like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies shielded Swanson from a heavy spotlight when he struggled. He still only hit .238 with a .699 OPS.

But Swanson was also playing last year with loose cartilage in his left wrist.

"Who knows what last year would have been without the injuries?" Swanson told the Sporting News during spring training. "But dealing with that from April, pretty much from the third week of the season on, it was difficult. Like, not many people know, but it was hard to put shirts on. It was hard to put a backpack on. … It's so mentally draining, being in pain every day."

Swanson came up to the Braves late in 2016 and played well, but the next two seasons would be tougher.
Swanson came up to the Braves late in 2016 and played well, but the next two seasons would be tougher.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

It was bad enough by the end of the season that Swanson couldn't play against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, bad enough that he needed surgery when the season was over.

He could still travel to watch a Duke basketball game over the winter, indulging his love for a game he played well in high school in Marietta, Georgia.

"Basketball's my real love," he said a couple years back. "But the major leagues was my dream."

He dreamed of being like Jeter or Nomar Garciaparra, the two shortstops he admired most. He said it wasn't necessarily a dream of playing for the hometown Braves, just of playing in the big leagues and winning.

He would become a star at Vanderbilt and then the first overall pick, and it really was a shock when the Diamondbacks included him in the trade for Shelby Miller that December.

It looked too good to be true for the Braves, that they could so easily and cheaply acquire a hometown kid who seemed destined for stardom. With the struggles of the last two years, that's exactly what it felt like: that it had been too good to be true.

But now here Swanson is, healthy and driving the ball the way he was supposed to. He's going to need to be an offensive shortstop, because he doesn't have the first-step quickness of the best defenders at the position. But he's sure-handed and has a sharp mind, and the shifts help him. If he hits like he should, his defense will be more than good enough.

So far this year, Swanson is hitting enough. He's the player he was supposed to be, and the story of the night he got traded to his hometown team is worth telling.

He really was worth the wait.

       

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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