In Dansby Swanson, the Braves have much more than a shortstop. Can they keep him?

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ST. LOUIS — When it became clear Freddie Freeman would not return to Atlanta, the Braves faced questions about replacing his presence. As much as Freeman’s talent helped the Braves charge toward becoming a perennial contender, his intangibles – his leadership and more – helped define his impact in the organization.

You often do not find someone who easily fills that role.

Unless another player begins to step into it, of course.

ExploreRonald Acuña says he has had ‘some pretty intense’ knee pain last few days

In that regard, the Braves are fortunate. Through the years, Dansby Swanson has continued developing into a leader, someone who has displayed consistency as he has gone about his business each day.

“Obviously, he kind of runs the ship for us,” Tyler Matzek said.

“I think he’s the same guy every day,” Max Fried said. “You know what you’re going to get from him.”

Asked for his definition of leadership, Swanson pointed to servant leadership. “Come to serve, not to be served,” he says. This is how he tries to conduct himself daily.

“I just feel like that’s the best form of leadership is giving yourself to one another, loving one another,” Swanson said. “With that, obviously, can come tough conversations. Love is just not always a feel-good thing. Sometimes there’s conversations or lessons that come with that, too, but I would just say that leadership is serving one another. And, obviously, I think that’s something that we kind of embody here, just how we treat each other and how we play. It’s definitely been working for us.”

Swanson is a free agent at season’s end, which means he might be playing out his final couple months in a Braves uniform. As we learned from Freeman’s case, it is impossible to predict how anyone’s contract situation will play out.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Braves in the AJC

Swanson’s camp and the Braves have talked about a contract extension, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, confirming a report from the New York Post’s Jon Heyman. It is unclear how much momentum those discussions have now. Swanson is represented by Excel Sports Management.

“I’m an Atlanta kid. This is my home,” Swanson told the AJC. “This will always be my home. After I’m done playing, (my fiancée) Mallory (Pugh) and I will be in Atlanta, and our kids will grow up in Atlanta, too. This is home, and (the Braves) know that. We’ll just see where things go.”

In Swanson, the Braves have much more than a shortstop. He is a leader, someone who is one of the clubhouse’s voices and, along with catcher Travis d’Arnaud, might be the Braves’ largest on-field presence. Swanson, a Marietta native, is a marketable player for the Braves because he plays shortstop and represents their organization well.

The Braves, on the other hand, have shown a desire to build a sustainable powerhouse. They have proven they will spend to keep players, whether that be Austin Riley or Matt Olson or Michael Harris. They are intent on contending yearly and have backed that with actions.

It seems there is interest on both sides for a contract extension. The Braves have committed to keeping their core, and Swanson is a major part of it.

“Out on the field, the guy’s a very calming force,” Matzek said. “Situation is never too big for him, I think that’s why he succeeds in those big moments. We look down the line, we can kind of see emotions on people’s faces, and Dansby’s always calm, cool and collected. … Dansby’s our leader in the clubhouse, for sure.”

“He has one objective, and it’s to win,” Fried said. “He puts the team in front of himself. He’ll willingly give up an at-bat to move a guy over or make a smart defensive play to kind of pick someone else up. He kind of embodies the ultimate team player, and when you can go out there and be that guy night in and night out – he wants to play every single day, he wants to win. When you see someone like that, it’s definitely a very prominent leader on the team going out there and being as selfless as he is, it rubs off on a lot of guys.”

Both Fried and Matzek mentioned something: Swanson rubs off on younger players. They see how he goes about things every day and they can take after him.

Riley is one of them. He said he’s learned a lot from Swanson. “He plays the game the right way,” the third baseman said of the shortstop. Swanson has a far-reaching impact.

“He’s the captain of our infield,” Riley said. “Every move or anything kind of goes through him. Whether it’s on our (defensive alignment) card or we want to make adjustments, we kind of look toward him to make sure we got the OK to make moves and stuff. That presence that he has. He’s a winner, he always has been a winner, and I think that alone has so much pull and so much drive that guys want to get behind it.”

Almost seven years ago, the Diamondbacks traded Swanson and others to the Braves. Swanson played for the Braves during the rough seasons, when fans hoped the rebuild would lead to a brighter future. He saw them finally reach the postseason, then come close to the World Series, then win it.

When evaluating players, front offices look beyond the numbers. They must discern a player’s makeup – the baseball word for character – and how he fits in the organization. This is especially true when big contracts, like the one Swanson has earned, are in play.

It begs the question: How much should a player’s intangible qualities be weighted?

“For a guy like him, a lot,” Riley said. “He’s been through the early stages when we weren’t very good early on and then to get to where we are now, to winning a championship last year. He’s been through it all, he’s seen it all, and doing it at a premier spot like shortstop. He’s only going to get better at the plate. To me, he should’ve already won a Gold Glove defensively. For me, I wouldn’t want anyone else.”

“You’re around the same guys every day, so when you have good people around, it makes the quality of your day – day in, day out – just that much better,” Fried said. “When you’re coming to the park and you want to be there and you’re enthusiastic and you’re not dreading it, you’re really looking forward to each and every day, it shows up exponentially on the field. When you have a bunch of really good guys around, it just is a better clubhouse environment, and you can tell that it shows on the field and results in wins.”

The Dodgers’ Trea Turner will be a free agent after this season. Minnesota’s Carlos Correa – you probably associate him more with Houston – has a player option for next season, so he could be available. But those guys will probably cost more, and Swanson entered Sunday with more Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, than Turner and Correa (all three are close).

Swanson has, without question, been one of baseball’s top shortstops this season. He also loves Atlanta and has been impactful in the clubhouse. This is a good recipe for a long-term partnership.

“We’d love to have him back,” Matzek said. “It’s out of our control as players – whatever shakes out, shakes out. But I know that even if he’s not in this clubhouse, he’s in the clubhouse. And what I mean by that is that he’s rubbed off on so many players in this clubhouse that a little piece of Dansby is going to be left behind in every single player. His game shows up in everybody.”

Swanson, whose faith is important to him, does not know where his journey will lead. But he is intent on leaving it in God’s hands.

“I think you, in a way, kind of have to,” Swanson said. “There’s been so many times that I’ve trusted my own understanding and it never works out for you. Just even this season for Mal and I – season of life, not just baseball season – a lot of things you question or don’t have clarity on and the more you try to dig in yourself, the more you kind of feel like you’re being led astray. I feel like we’ve really talked a lot about just surrendering it all over. Just where we’ll be, and we’re saying that where we’re supposed to be is going to be impactful for God and his kingdom.

“Just trying to keep that perspective is challenging and hard, but I think it’s the right way to go. Knowing that trusting in a plan that you may not understand is going to lead to bigger and greater blessings of whatever that’s supposed to look like. It’s not easy, it’s definitely challenging, but from life experiences, that’s the right way to do things.”