Braves haven’t anointed Vaughn Grissom, but they believe in him

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Dansby Swanson has departed, leaving a sizable hole at shortstop and raising questions asked by fans, reporters and pundits.

How will the Braves replace Swanson? Will they be worse? Can they really rely on a 22-year-old to fill the spot? Are the Braves doomed?

Let’s make something clear: Regardless of what happens, Vaughn Grissom is going to be Vaughn Grissom.

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“The only thing I can do for you guys is just play my game, and if you guys like it, I’m sure I’ll hear about it, and if you guys don’t, I’m sure I’ll hear about it,” Grissom said at Saturday’s Braves Fest. “To me, it doesn’t matter either way because I’m just going to go play my game. I’m not trying to go fill nobody’s shoes or do anything different. I’m just gonna go play Vaughn Grissom’s ball.”

At the beginning of the offseason, Ron Washington, the Braves’ infield maestro, came up with an idea: During the time off, he could host Grissom for three separate weeks to help the young player further his defensive development. And in the weeks since the two began working together, Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has publicly lauded Grissom and his tools. Anthopoulos’ message, more or less, has been that the Braves believe in Grissom, in large part because Washington does. The Braves understand they might take a step back at shortstop this season, but they believe their faith in Grissom could pay dividends in the future.

The tone of all of this: Losing Swanson doesn’t have to be a doomsday scenario. The Braves can continue winning and competing for World Series trophies. In fact, they plan to do so.

Publicly, the Braves have stopped short of anointing Grissom. He will compete with Orlando Arcia at spring training, they say. They haven’t promised Grissom anything.

But the affirmations must mean a lot for Grissom, right?

“It’s reassuring in a sense. It’s cool,” Grissom said. “Baseball’s a crazy sport, so it’s very humbling. So I know that you have to keep your head down and just grind. You can’t be listening to that stuff. To me, in my head, the job’s not mine. I still have to go earn something.”

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This is exactly the mindset the Braves would want for Grissom, who possesses big-time talent but must continue developing. The club believes in his bat, and Washington feels like Grissom will continue improving defensively.

Grissom offers the Braves more upside than Arcia or any veteran shortstop the club could sign at this point. Of course, this means nothing if Grissom doesn’t perform. But he has plenty of believers in his corner.

In a Q&A session with fans at Braves Fest, Anthopoulos told a story from 2017, when he first arrived in Atlanta. He came hoping to improve the team’s defense, which had been poor. Swanson was not yet close to what he became when he signed with the Cubs.

So, Anthopoulos asked Washington and legendary Braves skipper Bobby Cox, a special assistant to the general manager, a question: Should he try to acquire Freddy Galvis, then option Swanson to allow the young player to get reps in Triple-A?

According to Anthopoulos, Washington and Cox more or less responded with this: “No. Stick with him. He’s gonna get it. It’s gonna be a process. It’s gonna take time.”

And so the Braves rolled with Swanson, who matured into an All-Star and a Gold Glove shortstop before signing with Chicago for $177 million over seven years. (Grissom said he still talks to Swanson, who is “one of the best role models that you could ask for in a teammate.”)

When the Braves drafted Grissom, they understood he may eventually have to move off shortstop. They loved his bat – and still do – and his athleticism. But they also believe big-league reps are important, and Grissom could probably benefit from those. Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker have made it clear the Braves are looking for Grissom to play shortstop, not left field or any other position.

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“I can see how the scouting community might have questions about Vaughn. I had questions about Vaughn when I first saw him,” Anthopoulos said when answering a fan’s question. “And I’ve been wrong plenty of times. The difference is we have a guy in Ron Washington who’s unbelievable with this stuff. He wouldn’t just say something to say it. And that doesn’t mean he’s always right; he’s going to get it right.

“And, look, we don’t know how Vaughn’s going to hit. He’s got to earn the job. Orlando Arcia can do it, too. But Wash really believes in Vaughn. We believe in Vaughn, too, but we’re going to go with who we think the expert in that area is, and I don’t know anybody better in the game than Ron.”

Of his shortstop situation with Grissom and Arcia, Snitker said: “I think that’s two really good options that we could probably team up and probably not abuse either one of those guys, and have a really good product.”

When the Braves called Grissom to ask if he would want to work with Washington this offseason, the shortstop was stoked. “I think it’s changed my game a lot,” he said, reflecting on that. He’ll soon complete his third week with Washington, who has taught him a lot.

“Slowing it down,” Grissom said of one such lesson. “I figured out after a couple of weeks that he likes it when I move a little bit slower because it’s just a little crisper, it’s just more fluid. Most of the time, when you think you’re going the fastest, you’re slowing down or you’re leaving something behind.”

In 2022, Grissom started at shortstop only twice. He has only 141 at-bats to his name in the majors. His potential means it might be best for the Braves to play him now.

If he becomes Atlanta’s everyday shortstop, Grissom will have players around him who have been in his spot. First baseman Matt Olson, second baseman Ozzie Albies and third baseman Austin Riley have all held key roles in the majors at young ages.

They have advice for Grissom, who might soon join them.

“Play your game,” Riley said. “Don’t worry about who you’re trying to fill in for. Be yourself and just play your game and trust in your ability.”

“Just play like I do: Play hard every day, no matter what it takes, no matter how you feel,” Albies said. “He’s not going to feel 100% every day. My advice to him will be, ‘Just play the game hard, do what you gotta do, be ready for every pitch’ and that’s it.”

“Especially being as young as he is, I think No. 1 is just slowing the game down,” Olson said. “I think he does a great job of it, actually. He works hard before the game, he gets out there and he just does his thing during the game. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself and that gives other guys confidence in him.”

Over the last 12 months, the Braves have given out multiple long-term extensions as they’ve solidified their core. One potential byproduct of that: The Braves will need to work in a couple young players who have not yet reached arbitration to balance the larger contracts on their payroll. This is another benefit of Grissom, who also has the ability to be a better hitter than Swanson relatively soon if all goes well.

The Braves will miss Swanson – they know this. Swanson compiled 5.7 Wins Above Replacement in 2022, according to Baseball Reference. It might be unfair and unrealistic to expect Grissom to immediately match this.

But in the long run?

It seems like the Braves are confident they’ll be just fine.

“He’s a hard worker, and I think his personality, he just sticks out,” Michael Harris said of his close friend. “He’s a funny guy; he’s always goofy. He’s just him. He doesn’t try to change for anybody. He goes out there and plays his game. I think him just playing his game makes him a fit at shortstop for us.”