Mets, Phillies spend big. Will Braves do same for Dansby Swanson?

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

The Phillies committed $300 million to shortstop Trea Turner. The Mets are set to splurge on ace pitcher Justin Verlander. Meanwhile, the Braves have signed no free agents of note while their top priority, shortstop Dansby Swanson, remains on the market.

Sound familiar?

By now, we’re accustomed to the Mets and Phillies spending big on free agents while the Braves are linked to them but don’t sign them. (The latest rumor: Mets ace Jacob deGrom considered the Braves before signing with the Rangers). Then we watch the Braves make smaller, smarter deals before winning another National League East title as the Mets and Phillies get less bang for their buck.

That history is why it’s too early for Braves backers to worry about Swanson. Freddie Freeman ended up signing with the Dodgers before this past season, and everything turned out fine. Braves boss Alex Anthopoulos has earned every benefit of the doubt about his plans. It’s only December. MLB’s winter meetings just started.

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Still, the Swanson situation feels different for a few reasons. The Braves don’t have an easy way to replace Swanson, their payroll is close to the luxury tax threshold and they aren’t the defending World Series champions. All that makes the big moves by the Mets and Phillies seem more threatening than usual.

The Braves were eliminated in their first round of the playoffs by the Phillies, who won the NL pennant and now have the second-best shortstop in the East. The Mets have the best one (Francisco Lindor) and filled the huge hole left by deGrom with Verlander, who is just as good when healthy. Meanwhile, the Braves have neither improved the roster nor filled the big hole at shortstop.

It’s possible Swanson won’t be back. Several teams are looking for a good shortstop. He ranks among the top four available, and there’s a big gap to the rest. None of the teams with good shortstops under contract seem to be looking to trade them.

Do the Braves pay Swanson like a top-tier shortstop based on his career profile of good glove, so-so bat? How much will his defense decline as he ages? There are other factors for Anthopoulos to consider, such as Swanson’s great fit in the clubhouse. I admittedly have a hard time with variables that can’t be measured. I just know that whatever intangibles are worth, production is worth more.

Anthopoulos doesn’t overpay for free agents (Marcell Ozuna being the regrettable exception). But the tricky thing with Swanson is there isn’t a clear fallback plan. That’s the risk of letting Swanson reach free agency. This is the second offseason in a row that has happened with an everyday Braves player.

Swanson isn’t as good as Freeman, whose worst seasons are better than any Swanson produced before 2022. But Anthopoulos had Plan B ready when he decided to drop out of the bidding for Freeman. He quickly moved on to acquire Matt Olson in a trade with the Athletics. Adam Duvall also was under contract as a Plan C.

If Swanson signs elsewhere, replacing him with a comparable player won’t be so simple. At last month’s general managers meetings, Anthopoulos talked up Vaughn Grissom and Orlando Arcia as in-house options at shortstop. They aren’t good alternatives.

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Arcia has scuffled when asked to be more than a utility guy. Grissom is better suited to play second base, where Ozzie Albies is entrenched. The Braves showed they aren’t quite sold on Grissom when they gave him only three plate appearances in the Phillies series, compared with 12 for Arcia. The Braves have no good shortstop options in the minor leagues.

The free-agent market is the best place for the Braves to find a good shortstop. Turner was the first elite shortstop off the board. The Phillies will pay him $300 million over 11 years ($27.3 million average salary). That leaves Swanson, Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa on the top tier.

The experts at MLB Trade Rumors predict that Swanson will sign for seven years and $154 million ($22 million average). They forecast a nine-year, $288 million contract for Correa ($32 million average) and seven years, $189 million for Bogaerts ($27 million). Swanson is part of the group mostly because of his excellent defense. His bat isn’t nearly as good.

This year, Swanson surged at the plate through July. Then he cooled off and ended up matching his best previous season of 2020. Swanson will be 29 in February, so his 2020 and 2022 campaigns likely are his ceiling. When Swanson has it going, the Braves can expect him to hit something like .275 with 20 home runs and a .330 on-base percentage.

That’s good, and when combined with his defense, makes Swanson a top-five shortstop. But Swanson’s career norm is below-average hitting. Per the Weighted Runs Created Plus metric at FanGraphs, Swanson has had two bad seasons at the plate as an MLB regular, one OK season, one average season and two good ones.

The Braves could decide that Swanson isn’t worth the cost, especially with the luxury tax as a factor. Team CEO Terry McGuirk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October that his goal is for player payroll to rank in the top five among MLB teams. But the Braves already were close to that level in 2022, and FanGraphs projects their 2023 luxury tax payroll is near the $230 million threshold that puts a 20% levy on amounts above it.

Anthopoulos said the Braves will pay the tax “in the right context, in the right deal.” Signing Swanson to a contract with an average annual value of $20 million would cost the Braves roughly an additional $3 million in taxes. Additional payroll also would come with the 20% kicker. The Braves also could use a good, everyday left fielder.

The Braves are in a weird spot this offseason. They were the best team in the East this year. They just didn’t have the best season.

The Braves overtook the Mets for the East title, which should count for a lot. But it doesn’t because the Braves won a single postseason game, same as the Mets. The Braves finished 14 games in front of the Phillies, who beat them in their Division Series before winning the pennant. But it’s hard to say the Braves need major improvements after they won 101 games.

The Braves do need a shortstop for 2023. It could still be Swanson. If it’s not him, then they aren’t likely to be as good in 2023. That wasn’t the case when Olson replaced Freeman. That’s why the big spending by the Mets and Phillies this offseason feels a little different.