Dansby Swanson Heads to the Windy City
Why would you want to add a top-tier shortstop in free agency? I can think of plenty of reasons. Maybe you lost just such a player to free agency this offseason; after all, for every star reaching free agency, there’s a team that employed them in 2022 and now has a hole at the position. Maybe you want to improve a team that’s solid elsewhere but has room to improve at shortstop; the Phillies fit that description exactly and snagged Trea Turner earlier this month. Maybe your plan to promote a top prospect is starting to feel risky; if Aaron Judge had left New York, the Yankees might have replaced some of his production in the form of a slugging shortstop.
Or maybe your team just wants to get better and spend more money to do so. For example:
BREAKING: Cubs and Dansby Swanson have an agreement on a seven-year deal for $177 million, per source. https://t.co/9cmtK9mLzL
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) December 17, 2022
The Cubs weren’t close to contention in 2022, going 74–88 with underlying numbers that largely agreed with that assessment of their talent. They have interesting players on the major league roster and promising prospects nearing major league debuts, but even if several of those situations worked out, there’s a meaningful gap between 74 wins and the 93 the Cardinals posted to win the division. Heck, there’s a meaningful gap between 74 and 86, the mark the Brewers hit in a down year for them. If Chicago wanted to compete in 2023, it couldn’t sit pat.
Fortunately for its playoff chances, it appears that the team never planned to. In 2021 and ’22, the Cubs shed payroll as quickly as they shed wins. In 2019, they boasted the third-highest payroll in the majors, a cool $221 million. They checked in at $144 million (13th) in ’21 and $151 million (14th) in ’22. That’s hardly Guardians-esque, but it’s also meaningfully less than when they were competing for World Series titles.
In fact, the 2022 Cubs team felt like a skeleton waiting for some flesh to be added to its bones. I always implore rebuilding teams to seek out high-upside players who can either be a part of the next competitive core or fetch something valuable in trade. Chicago did a great job of that, both giving it own prospects plenty of opportunity and letting minor league journeymen have a chance in the majors.
In the meantime, the Cubs also started signing good players last offseason, adding both Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki to a team that certainly didn’t need their contributions right away. It’s hard to go from disastrous to excellent in a single offseason, so starting early makes sense. I still don’t think they’re going to compete for the NL Central crown this year, but with Jameson Taillon, Cody Bellinger, and now Swanson added to the roster, they’ll be far more competitive than they’ve been for the past few years.
If you went by his 2022 season alone, Swanson would merit a larger contract than the one he signed with the Cubs. He played in every game, batted nearly 700 times, and posted both his best offensive and defensive season. Put it all together, and he was worth 6.4 WAR, the 11th-best mark among all hitters. His season was a hair better than that of Turner, and he’s a year younger — and Turner got $300 million from the Phillies. It’s natural to wonder what warning signs teams saw in Swanson.
The obvious one is that he’s only been this good for one season. Before 2022, Swanson felt more like an above-average starter than a true star. He’s always been an excellent defender, but his career batting line before 2022 worked out to an 88 wRC+. That’s like José Iglesias, or perhaps a toned-down version of Andrelton Simmons — a glove-first starter who might spike the occasional All Star season on the back of a good batting line.
If that’s Swanson’s true talent level, he’s less All-Star and more role player. Under the hood, though, I think there’s good reason to believe that his true talent level is, if not a repeat of 2022, somewhere between that and his previous career. Why? Because while there are plenty of holes in his offensive game, he hits the snot out of the baseball, plain and simple.
The above comparisons to Iglesias and Simmons might make sense from a total offensive contribution perspective, but Swanson is nothing at all like them at the plate. He’s not a slap-hitting contact fiend; he’s basically the opposite of that, in fact. For the past three years, he’s been stinging the ball on contact, posting barrel rates above 10% in each year, ranking in the top 15% in the game. Some of that is because he puts a ton of balls into the air — you can’t get credit for a barrel if you don’t hit it in the air — but he also makes a lot of loud contact.
Over the years, Swanson has gotten better and better at getting to his power. That’s how you end up with a higher isolated power in 2022, the year of the new dead ball, than in 2019, the peak of the rabbit ball era. He’s hit more home runs in his past two seasons over a combined 1,349 plate appearances than in his previous 2,038 plate appearances in a higher-offense era. Group 2020 in with New Dansby, and that’s 40 homers in his first 1,774 plate appearances followed by 62 in the most recent 1,613 trips to the plate.
ZiPS buys into Swanson’s newfound pop, projecting him for a slugging percentage nearly 20 points above his career mark in 2023. It sees him roughly the same way I do, as an above-average bat despite his early-career struggles:
ZiPS would have offered Swanson almost exactly the contract he got: $176.2 million over seven years, only $800,000 under his actual deal. And while we’re on the topic of ZiPS, it also spit out 2023 percentiles that suggest there’s a real chance he’ll collect some MVP votes:
ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Dansby Swanson (644 PA)
The reason that Swanson’s plus power doesn’t translate into an even better projection is another way he’s not like Iglesias or Simmons: he strikes out a ton. He struck out 26.1% of the time in 2022, and he’s at an even 26% over his past three high-power years. Swinging harder and trying to hit home runs has clearly worked, but it hasn’t been without downsides. He also doesn’t walk much despite having a decent idea of the strike zone, because he swings early and often trying to launch fastballs into the seats.
Fastballs? Oh yeah, definitely fastballs. Every hitter in baseball would prefer to see fastballs to secondary pitches, but Swanson is an extreme version of that. Over the past three years, he’s been downright excellent against both four-seamers and sinkers, roughly matching Pete Alonso’s production against those two pitches. That’s home run champion Pete Alonso, career 138 wRC+ Pete Alonso, one of the best power hitters in the game. Swanson looks nothing like Alonso, but when it comes to smashing heaters, they’re shockingly similar.
Throw Swanson anything else, and the story changes. He’s in the top quarter of production against fastballs and the *bottom* quarter of production against all other pitches, cutters included. Most of that comes down to trouble with sliders; he both misses too often when he swings at them and doesn’t do enough damage when he connects. To use the Alonso comparison again, he slugged .717 when he put a slider into play last year; Swanson checked in at .485. He’s a power hitter, no doubt, but it all comes down to whether or not he can punish enough fastballs to paper over gaps elsewhere.
I think he can. He already sees a metric ton of sliders — 26.5% last year — and still manages to hunt enough fastballs to hit for power. In fact, I think that has a lot to do with his low walk rate. He swings at early fastballs in the zone very aggressively, because he knows his own strengths and weaknesses. It might cut down on his chances of walking — you can’t walk if you don’t take pitches — but you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, and Swanson is only making omelets out of fastballs.
You might also notice, in the above ZiPS projection, that Swanson’s defense is projected to start strong and gently decline over time. I don’t think he’s 15 runs above average defensively at shortstop, which is the mark he put up in 2022 according to Statcast. I’m completely willing to believe ZiPS’ view, though; that would make him a great defensive shortstop but not the standout best defender in the majors. That sounds about right to me; you can’t watch Swanson and deny he’s defensively gifted, but you also can’t watch him without wondering whether he has a big enough arm to be truly elite. Statcast has pegged his arm in the 15th percentile in each of the past three years.
I think it’s fair to say that Swanson is the fourth-best shortstop out of the top four who were on the market this year. Turner, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts all have meaningfully higher offensive ceilings. But I’ll level with you: the more I looked into Swanson while preparing to write this article, the more I revised my opinion of him higher.
It’s easy to pigeonhole him as a blah hitter who spiked a career year he’ll never repeat heading into free agency. I don’t buy it, though. I think he’s a thumping hitter who will be above average at the plate even if he doesn’t figure something out against breaking balls, but with the chance for more if something clicks and he gets up to even average against them. It’s not like he’s signing for the change in David Ross’ couch or anything, but it’s not the kind of contract that will restrict Chicago’s ability to add other players, even if the team wants to operate on a tight budget. A reasonable deal for a solid player with the chance to be more than that? I like the sound of it.
Swanson probably won’t figure out how to ascend to a new level. He doesn’t have to, though; look at those ZiPS projections. That’s a borderline All-Star every year even if he never figures out how to hit sliders. I don’t think it’ll block anyone on the Cubs, either; Nico Hoerner is also a great defender, but he’ll slide over to second base and improve the entire infield. Throw in Bellinger, and this will be one of the best defensive units in baseball, particularly up the middle.
The Cubs aren’t a finished product yet. They could use a first baseman, and maybe some more pitching. The Cardinals will be hard to catch even if they make those changes, at least in 2023. But that was going to be the case almost regardless of what Chicago did this year. I think the Cubs needed to go out and get someone with the potential to be a star to keep adding to the core they’re starting to develop. Maybe Swanson is miscast as the best player on a team, but he’s an excellent shortstop, and if the they are planning on spending back to their championship-era payroll when their next wave of prospects arrives, starting with him in the middle of everything makes good sense to me.