Who’s going to play shortstop for the Atlanta Braves?
On Aug. 17th, 2016, a curly-haired rookie named Dansby Swanson trotted out to shortstop for his MLB debut. Since that moment, the Atlanta Braves have played 948 baseball games; 911 in the regular season, 37 in the postseason. Swanson was the starting shortstop for nearly 90% of those games.
Swanson’s impressive, 842-start run included an All-Star appearance, a Gold Glove, five division titles and, of course, a 2021 World Series championship. The eight non-Dansbies who stumbled into a start over that span — Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jace Peterson, Chase d’Arnaud, Tim Beckham, Orlando Arcia and Ehire Adrianza — are a who’s who of replacement-level heroes and “remembered guys.”
Only one ballplayer, former Boston/current San Diego shortstop Xander Bogaerts, compiled more starts (850) at a single position for a single team since Swanson’s debut. For six years, Swanson was the epitome of dependability. If you tune into a Braves game, the hometown glovesmith was almost certainly the guy playing shortstop.
But time passes and empires fade. Baseball remains a business. And so, Swanson’s Brave days are behind him. Now, he’s a Cub. And for the first time since before the Cubs won the World Series, the Braves face an alien conundrum. They must fill an unfamiliar and impactful void.
Nowhere on Atlanta’s roster is there an obvious, no-doubt shortstop immediately capable of filling Swanson’s enormous shoes. There is no Jeremy Peña to Swanson’s Carlos Correa. And though there were a smattering of eligible shortstop bachelors available in free agency this winter, the Braves kept their pocketbook sealed shut as Swanson, Correa, Bogaerts and Trea Turner signed elsewhere.
Some assortment of able-bodied men aged 20-40 will play 162 games worth of shortstop for the Braves this upcoming season. That is a fact. Somebody has to do it. That somebody won’t be me or you or Swanson or Correa or Rafael Furcal.
So then, who?
Here are the options, internal and external, ranked with consideration and insight, from most to least likely.
When 2022 started, Grissom was a promising prospect who hadn’t yet played above A-Ball and wasn’t old enough to buy himself a beer. By October, he was starting playoff games at second base.
It was quite a remarkable ascension, even by Braves prospect standards. After joining the big-league club in early August, Grissom posted a 121 OPS+ (21% better than league average) in 156 trips to the dish.
While the 6-foot-3 rookie impressed offensively as infield stalwart Ozzie Albies was on the IL, his glove at second base underwhelmed. Grissom was worth minus-four outs above average — in a small sample size, which can be interpreted two ways. Considering the difficulty for many in transitioning from second to the six, there’s reason to doubt his viability as a big-league shortstop.
It’s still worth noting that Grissom spent the majority of his minor-league tenure at shortstop. Some professional evaluators believe he took a step forward defensively at short in 2022 and has a chance to be an average big-league defender there.
The Braves, moreover, are not a stupid baseball team; they let Swanson walk for a reason. The organization, and more specifically infield wizard Ron Washington, must believe that Grissom has the skills and work ethic necessary to develop into a competent defensive presence. Time will tell, but expect him to be the Opening Day shortstop.
The 28-year-old utility man saw time at second, third, short and left field last season while providing league-average value at the plate. He also pitched a scoreless inning, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Once upon a time, Arcia was a highly touted shortstop prospect with Milwaukee. Prior to breaking into the bigs in 2016, Baseball America ranked him eighth, one spot ahead of Turner and 10 spots ahead of Rafael Devers. MLB Pipeline had Arcia sixth, two spots ahead of Swanson.
Arcia’s hit tool never quite developed and he struggled to produce in six seasons with the Brewers. Once they sent him to Atlanta in April of 2021, he transitioned into a flawed but useful utility player. Arcia became the “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” shortstop, only Swanson never broke.
But with Swanson gone and Grissom’s defensive chops unproven, Arcia could see significant time at his old position. He’s only two seasons removed from starting 86% of Milwaukee’s games at shortstop as a 74th percentile defender, per Baseball Savant. Couple that with Arcia’s offensive improvements in 2022 — his swing rate dropped by 8%, the second-largest year-to-year drop in baseball — and there’s a very real chance Arcia finishes the season with the most games at shortstop of any Brave.
Adrianza is essentially Arcia, except he’s a much worse hitter, was never a top prospect and isn’t as good defensively. He’ll start the year as Triple-A depth, but if one or two infielders get hurt, he could feature as a passable, temporary stopgap.
Drafted 21st overall back in 2019, the former Texas A&M standout is the epitome of replacement level. The lanky 25-year-old performed adequately on both sides of the ball (.715 OPS) with Triple-A Gwinnett in 2022, but scouts unanimously agree that Shewmake won’t be an impact player at the big-league level.
He’ll get a call-up at some point in 2023, but barring a large jump in performance, Shewmake doesn’t look like a cornerstone player for Atlanta.
José Iglesias/Elvis Andrus
As our world gets ever more complex and intimidating, Iglesias is a comforting friend we can all lean back on. The 33-year-old free agent is dependable for three things: (1) hitting for a high average, (2) playing sufficient defense that looks cool, and (3) not hitting for any power. He did all three last year in 118 games for Colorado and remains the best defensive shortstop available in free agency.
Andrus, who played two-and-a-half seasons as a Braves minor-leaguer more than 15 years ago before getting dealt to Texas as part of the Mark Texiera blockbuster, had an unexpected offensive renaissance during the final six weeks of this past season. After Oakland released him in August, Andrus joined the White Sox and inexplicably slashed .271/.309/.464 (116 OPS+) in 191 plate appearances. How real was that stretch? It’s probably not sustainable, but the 34-year-old Andrus looks to have enough left in the tank to be a starting shortstop.
Will Atlanta pounce on either of these guys? That’s doubtful, unless someone gets hurt.
As a prospect coming up through Atlanta’s minor-league system, Albies played 319 more innings at shortstop than he did second base. Because of Swanson, Albies has never played a single inning at shortstop in his six-year MLB career; in fact, his last game there was in Triple-A in July of 2017.
Since then, Albies has (1) gotten much slower, and (2) dealt with a number of lower-body injuries, both of which make it unlikely he slides over to his original position. But Ozzie is still (somehow) only 26 years old and probably has enough athleticism to make the transition back. Lord knows his BFF Ron Washington would love the challenge.
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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