Debating who should be the Braves shortstop of the future would have seemed silly just two years ago.
The Braves had just signed Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year, $58 million contract before the 2014 season began, a deal that appeared to lock down the position for the rest of the decade with the best defensive shortstop in baseball.
Instead, Simmons spent just two more seasons with the Braves before the team shipped him off to the Angels in the midst of a complete organizational overhaul. But instead of a hole in the middle of the diamond, the Braves now have two of the game’s elite shortstop prospects close to contributing. Neither one has made it any easier to figure out which one will be the future shortstop in Atlanta.
There’s Dansby Swanson, who entered pro ball with a golden pedigree—No. 1 overall draft pick, coming off his second straight trip to the College World Series at Vanderbilt after winning Most Outstanding Player at the CWS the previous season. Swanson, 22, was too good for high Class A Carolina, so the Braves bumped him to Double-A Mississippi last week. Overall, Swanson is hitting .333/.434/.544 through 106 plate appearances with 15 walks, 13 strikeouts and two home runs, including one inside-the-parker. His 13 doubles are tied for the minor league lead and he has stolen seven bases in eight attempts.
One level ahead of Swanson, the Braves have 19-year-old Ozzie Albies, who now edges Dodgers precocious lefty Julio Urias as the youngest player in Triple-A. The diminutive shortstop signed out of Curacao for $350,000 in 2013. Even the best players from that class—like Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers and Cubs shortstop Gleyber Torres—are in high Class A, with many promising prospects signed that year still in extended spring training.
The Braves have hit the accelerator with Albies, who missed the final month of the 2015 season with a broken right thumb but still skipped a level to start the year in Double-A before getting the quick bump to Triple-A Gwinnett in conjunction with Swanson’s promotion. Albies is batting .332/.402/.458 in 107 plate appearances with 10 walks and 16 strikeouts. He only has two stolen bases in five tries, but he has shown plus-plus speed.
Swanson is three years older than Albies, but Albies is one level ahead, which at least gives Albies a head start in the race to Atlanta. At the plate, the switch-hitting Albies has shown supreme bat control and the ability to use the whole field. He has excellent plate coverage and makes frequent contact thanks to his innate hand-eye coordination, which can even be a detriment at times when he pokes a pitch out of the strike zone for a weak ground ball. Generously listed at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Albies has gotten stronger since signing but is unlikely to ever be a power threat, relying more on hitting line drives to all fields and getting on base. He shows a two-strike approach as well, starting his swing with a leg kick until he gets to two strikes and cuts down to a smaller toe tap.
Albies’ baseball IQ is outstanding for his age and shows up in all phases of the game. He might look like he’s 16 years old, but his instincts and internal clock are well beyond his years. Albies has a nose for the ball at shortstop, getting good jumps off the bat with quick feet, clean actions and smooth hands at shortstop to go with plus or better arm strength.
All of those tools were on display in his second Triple-A game, when he ranged deep to his right to field a groundball in shallow left field, picked it cleanly on a backhand play, then made a jump throw that he fired direct online to first base for the out.
If there’s a knock on Albies defensively, it’s that he can get erratic with his throws. Four of his six errors this season are throwing errors, though the two he picked up in Triple-A were only slightly off the mark. Through coaching and repetition, it’s easily correctable and common to find among young shortstops, it just happens to stand out more when that young shortstop is one step away from the majors instead of in low Class A.
Swanson doesn’t have Albies pure arm strength, but it’s a solid-average arm that plays up due to his quick exchange and accuracy. He’s an above-average runner with a quick first step and good anticipation at shortstop. Last week with high Class A Carolina, he showed off his instincts, footwork and athleticism on this groundball up the middle that he fielded, spun and made an accurate throw to first to end the game.
At the plate, Swanson is a polished righthanded hitter who should move quickly. He has a short, quick swing and a good batting eye, projecting as a potential plus hitter who should get on base at a high clip. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he has more size and power potential than Albies.
The Braves could plug Swanson in at shortstop in Atlanta and have a potential franchise cornerstone at the position. Or if the Braves want to hand the job to Albies and move Swanson to second base, he has experience there already, having played that position as a sophomore at Vanderbilt in 2014 before moving to shortstop in 2015.
There isn’t an obvious answer to what the Braves should do, but it’s a decision Braves fans should be excited to watch unfold.