Rising star could help usher in renaissance for Atlanta
By Terence Moore
ATLANTA -- I thought I was the only one. When I first met rising Braves star Dansby Swanson in August by his locker at Turner Field, he called me by my name soon after I entered his vicinity.
At the end of the interview, Swanson said, "Thanks, Terence."
Thanks? I mean, is this guy with the firm handshake and the habit of looking you straight in the eye really a rookie, I thought, especially since seasoned players often lack such etiquette?
Braves first-base coach Eddie Perez nodded later, saying of the notable former student-athlete from Vanderbilt University: "Dansby is definitely different, and he's very different. During Spring Training, he said hello to me, and he called me by my name. Since we had so many new people in camp this year, I didn't even know who this kid was."
If you don't know Swanson by now, you will. The 22-year-old native of Marietta, located just a few line drives away from the Braves' new ballpark that opens this season in Smyrna, is among the primary reasons his franchise is flirting with a renaissance in 2017. Atlanta averaged 90 losses per year over the past three seasons, but the seeds for that renaissance were planted in late summer.
It's just that nobody noticed beyond Georgia. Most folks kept studying a team to the north with ivy-covered walls and a 108-year-old World Series-title drought that is now yesterday's news. Then again, the Braves have a connection with those Cubs. Just like the North Siders, the Braves kept adding prospects to build toward something greater. It's working, and we saw as much down the stretch last season.
Enter Dansby, who looks and sounds like the real thing.
"I think he can handle pretty much anything we throw at him," Braves manager Brian Snitker said this week at the Winter Meetings. "After what I've witnessed … just the person that he is, and the makeup, the confidence, you know, just the player -- that kid's a baseball player. When he jumped in there at the end [of the season], and we hit him eighth, that's tough for a young guy. But shoot, he adjusted and adapted, and he asks questions all of the time. It's all of the right questions, too."
That's what Vandy men do. I can't remember any of them playing like this, though.
With the acquisition of slugger Matt Kemp in late July and Swanson's promotion from Double-A Mississippi a few weeks later, the Braves won 50 of their last 97 games. I'll save Kemp for another column, so back to Dansby, who played solidly at shortstop. He also was as spectacular at times as Andrelton Simmons, the former Braves shortstop with two Gold Glove Awards.
At the plate, Dansby, Atlanta's No. 1 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, hit .302 with three home runs, a .361 on-base percentage and a .442 slugging percentage in 145 plate appearances. The rest of the Braves spent August through season's end feeding off Dansby's energy, or maybe it was the other way around.
Actually, it was both.
"Momentum is a big thing in sports -- whether it's football, basketball, baseball or whatever -- so when you kind of get the confidence flowing in the right direction as an entire team, it sets up some positive attitudes and vibes going into next year," Swanson said.
During his days on the Vandy campus, he used his brain and brawn to help push the Commodores to the 2014 College World Series championship, for which he was named the most valuable player. The following year, he just missed grabbing the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's top player.
Through it all, Dansby had that striking maturity. So the D-backs grabbed him with the No. 1 Draft pick in 2015, traded him back to his home area of Atlanta last December, and then the Braves wasted little time promoting him to the Major Leagues.
Despite Mom, Dad and much of Marietta making all that noise in the stands during his Braves debut, Swanson calmly managed two hits. Later, he told me he had visualized everything that transpired that night years earlier, when he imagined playing for the same Braves he idolized as a youth during the tail end of their record 14 consecutive division titles.
Now Swanson can help his Braves start a streak of their own. You have to like their chances. They spurted near the end of last season despite one of the shakiest pitching rotations in baseball. In the offseason, Braves management acquired former Cy Young Award winners Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, as well as veteran left-hander Jaime Garcia. That trio will join holdover Julio Teheran, a perennial All-Star, as starters, and in the bullpen, Atlanta should improve behind veteran closer Jim Johnson.
The Braves' offense finally broke through last season after a slow start; the presence of Kemp and Swanson made All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman and others more productive in the lineup.
This isn't to say the Braves expect the end of their 2016 season to carry over to '17, at least not according to Swanson.
"I think a lot of what makes you successful is focusing on the now, and not getting too far ahead of yourself about next year, and also by not living in the past," Swanson said. "You want to focus on each day, and when the time comes, you prepare for the game, and then you try to put your best ball out there on the field. So I wouldn't say it's a conscious thought that we have to build off what we did [last season], but we know we're going in the right direction, and now it's just a matter of building that chemistry with one other."
I'll go with that.
I mean, he's a Vandy man.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.