Braves say they have leaders who will step up after departure of Dansby Swanson

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A couple hours after the news broke, Kyle Wright tried to recall his initial reaction to it.

“I don’t even know if you really have words at first, I guess,” Wright said.

On that Saturday afternoon, he had been looking at his phone when it popped up on the screen: Dansby Swanson and the Cubs had agreed to a seven-year, $177 million contract, officially ending Swanson’s tenure with the Braves. At the time of this phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wright hadn’t even reached out to many teammates because he figured everyone, like him, was still trying to process Swanson’s departure.

“We’ve kind of done this before a little bit, if I will, obviously with Freddie (Freeman),” Wright told the AJC a couple hours after the news broke. “I mean, this is where you realize this is kind of baseball sometimes. I guess it’s where a lot of the emotions come from. This time of the year is super exciting, but it’s also kind of nerve-wracking at the same time. This is truly the business side of baseball, there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made. It’s still a lot of raw emotions and still trying to process everything.”

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This feels like the same story as last time.

Weeks before opening day in 2022, the Braves lost Freddie Freeman. Months before opening day in 2023, they lost Swanson, who, following Freeman’s exit, became the clubhouse’s unquestioned leader.

After Freeman signed with the Dodgers, everyone wondered how the Braves would replace his leadership. (They acquired Matt Olson to fill the void at first base). Now, everyone is asking the same about moving on without Swanson’s voice and presence.

“It’s tough, right?” Wright said. “I think kind of the main thing is you just hope that what he’s brought to the clubhouse and his ‘It’ factor that he’s brought kind of rubs off on everyone else. I feel like that’s the only way you really can (replace him), because it’s just one of the things you can’t really coach. You just kind of find it and it just kind of takes over. So I think for us, hopefully it’s rubbed off on enough of us to where we can now try to take that and up our games and try to have that ‘It’ factor as well.”

At Braves Fest, manager Brian Snitker and a large group of his players entered the press conference room – one after another – and addressed local media. Among the main topics from the day: Swanson’s departure and how the Braves would fill the void. It became clear that, while Swanson’s former teammates and manager miss him, they expect to roll on, business as usual.

Vaughn Grissom and Orlando Arcia will compete for the starting shortstop job. Whoever wins out will be a part of what should continue being one of baseball’s best infields. In the clubhouse, the Braves believe they possess the pieces to continue their winning culture.

Yes, they miss Swanson. He was a beloved teammate, leader and friend. (In Wright’s case, he and Swanson were teammates going back to their Vanderbilt days).

But the Braves are not sulking. They are looking ahead.

“I love Dansby,” Travis d’Arnaud said. “He’s been a tremendous friend of mine. He’s been a tremendous influence in this organization since he came over (from Arizona). He’s taught everybody in the clubhouse how to respect the game and how to pull on the same rope, basically. We all hope nothing but the best for him.

“We all understand it’s a business. I mean, if we didn’t learn with what happened with Freddie how much of the business this is, then you learned it from Dansby. I think the Cubs got a great shortstop, a great leader. I think he’s going to change the culture in that organization back to the winning ways that they were before. But at the same time, I believe in the guys we have here, and I think we’re going to be just fine.”

Credit: Brian Cassella

Credit: Brian Cassella

Right after finishing that last sentence, d’Arnaud added that in every year he’s been in Atlanta, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has built “championship-caliber teams.” There were a few mentions of Anthopoulos throughout the day, including this one: A few hours after d’Arnaud spoke, Austin Riley said he trusted that Anthopoulos and the front office thought through the situation.

This sounds similar to last year, when Braves players grappled with Freeman’s departure. They were bummed out, but many players expressed faith in Anthopoulos. While building talented rosters, the executive hasn’t sacrificed chemistry – he’s emphasized it, in fact.

There is only one Dansby Swanson.

But d’Arnaud is a leader. Riley is ready to step up. Ozzie Albies has leadership qualities. Charlie Morton has seen everything there is to see in baseball. Max Fried has seemingly taken a larger leadership role as he has matured. Olson could be more of a vocal leader in his second year on the team.

“I think Alex has done a good job of getting a good core group of guys where it doesn’t have to be one person to lead the clubhouse,” Riley said. “It could be whoever. I think we all, as a group, have the same mindset, have the same goals, have the same values to where it kind of monitors itself. When things aren’t going well, we don’t hit the panic button. It’s not like there’s gonna be a bunch of tension in the clubhouse, and pointing fingers. I don’t think it’s going to be any of that, and I know it’s not.”

During the summer, the Braves and Swanson discussed a potential contract extension. The Braves offered Swanson a six-year deal worth $100 million. In the coming months, when Swanson hit free agency and fellow shortstops received massive contracts, it became clear the Braves wouldn’t be competitive (by their own choice) in a market that was more robust than anyone expected.

In the aforementioned phone interview from December, Wright said he never felt Swanson’s departure seemed inevitable, “but kind of as the offseason goes on and you start seeing a lot of those really big contracts are going on, you really understand the value or the premium on shortstops.” Eventually, the Cubs exceeded Atlanta’s offer.

“You just never know,” Wright said. “The offer that he got, it’s hard to leave that money on the table. That’s life-changing for generations, and you can do a lot of good things with that.”

Wright’s reaction to the entire situation was one his teammates echoed about a month later: He’s sad he’ll no longer wear the same uniform as Swanson, someone who believed in him when not many people did, but he’s happy for Swanson and applauded the Cubs on a great pickup. Of course, there are mixed emotions because tight-knit bonds are part of baseball.

But in Atlanta, the Braves aren’t fretting. Their goals remain the same, and they feel they have more than enough high-quality individuals to achieve them.

“There’s so many guys (here) who go about their business and do things the right way that you just kind of feed off of,” Wright said. “That’s one thing our locker room is really good about, is kind of leading by example and showing up every day and working hard.”