This upcoming MLB offseason, for the second year in a row, the shortstop market should be the most intriguing part of free agency. As always, shortstops come at a premium as there are few elite ones and they serve as anchors for their team. Prior to the 2022 MLB season, we saw Corey Seager sign a 10-year, $325M deal with the Texas Rangers, Trevor Story sign a six-year, $140M deal with the Red Sox, and Javier Baez sign the same deal with the Tigers. This offseason Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson, and potentially Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts are all up for new contracts. In a four-part series, we will take a deep dive into their potential markets and how much they’re worth, starting with Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson.
Swanson Through 2022
Dansby Swanson was drafted first overall in 2015 by the Arizona Diamondbacks and graduated as a top five prospect in baseball when he made his Major League debut in 2016. Though he first appeared to be a bust, Swanson has taken huge strides over the past two years. Through his age-25 season in 2019, Swanson had slashed just .245/.318/.385 with an 80 wRC+ and 4.2 fWAR in 445 games. Since then, however, he has a .269/.331/.454 (110 wRC+) slash line and 10.7 fWAR.
This season has been, by far, the best season of Swanson’s career. He has put up career-high marks both offensively and defensively while not missing a game. His 122 wRC+ is the best of his career and ranks him sixth among all qualified shortstops. His 14 outs above average (OAA) lead all shortstops and place him within the top five at any position. He has accumulated 5.1 fWAR which ranks top 10 in the league and 2nd at the shortstop position, trailing only 341 million dollar shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Swanson’s 2022 Breakout
The interesting thing about Swanson’s breakout is that it’s difficult to pinpoint the adjustments that he has made. His 26.3% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate are actually worse than they were in 2021. He is lifting the ball a little more but he has a lower barrel rate than he did in both 2020 and 2021. His ISO is significantly lower than the past two years, but his batting average has risen by about 50 points. He’s hitting more line drives (22.3%) and fewer pop-ups (6.8%) but the rest of his batted ball data is similar to the past few years.
The biggest difference for Swanson is that he’s been quite fortunate when it comes to BABIP luck. His .377 BABIP is the highest among all qualified hitters and would be the highest of any full season in his career by about 70 points. While sometimes BABIP is used as a copout answer to explain improved offensive production, there are no other signs pointing to this type of offensive production. He has cooled down significantly recently, too. Since June 26th, he has just a 90 wRC+ and since August 3rd, that number is just 69. While those numbers are admittedly cherry-picked, it’s hard to ignore the severe offensive regression Swanson has suffered since the beginning of the season.
Last offseason, we saw many huge deals given out to big-name middle infielders. The aforementioned Baez, Seager, and Story deals set the market for shortstops while Carlos Correa signed a short-term deal with the option to hit free agency once again in 2022. Despite playing the same position, the best comparison for Swanson may be Texas Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien, who signed a seven-year, $175M contract this past offseason.
Semien and Swanson both got off to slow starts before breaking out a few years before hitting free agency. In 2021, Semien had a 131 wRC+, 4.0 BsR, 7 OAA (at 2B), and 6.2 fWAR. Thus far in 2022, Swanson has a 122 wRC+, 3.6 BsR, 14 OAA (at SS), and 5.1 fWAR. I know it’s not exactly fair to do this, but Swanson is on pace for 6.9 fWAR in 2022 if he continues to play at the same level. Either way, it’s clear that heading into free agency, Semien was the better hitter while Swanson is the better defender.
Overall, Semien was probably the better player but he was also a year older and had some concerns regarding his xwOBA and the variance derived from playing in a minor league stadium for half of the 2021 season. If Semien is a $175M player over seven years, it’s hard to argue that Swanson deserves more than that. In the three years before signing his contract, Semien had accumulated 13.0 fWAR, while Swanson would accumulate 12.5 if he puts up 6.9 this year (which, again, is a generous estimate).
Javier Baez, who signed with the Detroit Tigers for six years, $140M is another good comparison for Swanson. Both players are shortstops and both were/will be entering their age-29 season when they hit free agency. Baez has had a fairly inconsistent career, posting both a season where he finished top-2 in MVP voting and one where he was the worst qualified hitter in baseball. Either way, Baez was coming off of a hot 2nd half for the Mets when he entered free agency. Unlike Swanson, Baez’s best years came early on in his career. In the final four years before hitting free agency, Baez posted a 113 wRC+, 51 OAA, 7.7 BsR, and 16.3 fWAR.
With free agency deals, teams are always taking a chance. But it feels less risky to sign Swanson than Baez for a couple of reasons. First of all, Baez was two years removed from the peak of his powers when he put up 11.9 fWAR across two seasons. Also, Swanson will most likely be entering free agency coming off of a 6 WAR season rather than the 4 WAR season Baez had in 2021. However, at the same time, Baez got hot at the end of the year while Swanson seems to be falling back to earth.
Other than Atlanta, some other players in the Dansby Swanson sweepstakes may be the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox, among others. The Phillies would make a lot of sense for Swanson as they’ve shown the willingness to shell out huge contracts to players with questionable track records. All signs are pointing to the Red Sox parting ways with longtime shortstop Xander Bogaerts, so they could also be in the market for Swanson this offseason. Trea Turner is also a free agent, which opens up a spot in Los Angeles. The Angels are still in need of a shortstop, and there are a couple of young teams like the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs that could be interested in a shortstop to help finish their rebuilds.
What Will the Dansby Swanson Contract Look Like?
While a “prove-it” deal like Marcus Semien’s in 2021 or Carlos Correa’s in 2022 may be a possibility for Swanson, it probably makes more sense for him to sign a long-term deal. There are a few teams that may be in play for a new shortstop this offseason, and it’ll be interesting to see where he lands. The Braves have shown no fear in extending their young stars, but Swanson seems to be the odd one out. Austin Riley, Michael Harris II, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies have all been extended for the next five years, but Swanson will most likely hit the open market in the offseason.
Based on his career WAR, Swanson has been worth $119M up to this point in his career. Obviously, $/WAR isn’t an exact science but the general idea is that 1 WAR is worth just approximately $8M. ZiPS projects Swanson as a 2.5 WAR player for each of the next three years, but that projection seems low considering Swanson has put up at least 3 WAR in each of the past two seasons. If Swanson can be a 3.5-win player for the next four years and a 3-win player for the following two seasons, he would end up putting up around 20 WAR over a six-year contract. Of course, all of this is hypothetical, but a six-year, $160M contract may not be completely unreasonable. It really depends on how many years teams will be willing to give Swanson, especially given that there are potentially three more elite shortstops hitting the open market, but I’d project that Swanson gets around a five-year, $125M ($25M AAV) deal.
Main image credit