Carolina Mudcats manager Rocket Wheeler likes what he sees in his highly touted shortstop, Dansby Swanson.
“I use the word great, not good,” Wheeler said of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft. “That’s what I think of Dansby Swanson. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
What does Wheeler see in the young player, who is rated the No. 1 prospect in the Braves’ system by Baseball America and MLB.com, and the No. 6 prospect overall by MLB.com?
“Range, arm, awareness defensively,” the veteran minor league manager said. “Offensively, he puts the bat on the ball, drives the ball. He’s an outstanding baserunner. He’s looking to score every time he gets on. He has great game awareness, not only offensively but defensively. … He’s got the total package.”
The Arizona Diamondbacks made Swanson the No. 1 pick in last June’s draft, one year after he led Vanderbilt to the College World Series championship as a sophomore. And the Atlanta Braves, the parent team of the Mudcats, made Swanson the key acquisition in a five-player trade with the Diamondbacks back in December that sent All-Star pitcher Shelby Miller to Arizona.
That trade was the second taste of adversity in Swanson’s brief professional career.
“I didn’t really expect to get traded, obviously,” he said Tuesday before the Mudcats’ Carolina League game with the visiting Salem Red Sox. “I didn’t realize what to think. At first I felt, not angry, but upset. But I didn’t want to react out of emotion. I wanted to make an opportunity-based decision, not an emotionally based decision.”
Upon further reflection, Swanson, 22, a native of Kennesaw, Ga., embraced the idea of being traded to his hometown team.
“I did grow up a Braves fan,” he said. “Being home is awesome, but there are negatives. I guess you could call them distractions, things that people don’t think about. People want to take up your time, when you’ve got a job to do. But it’s awesome to have family and friends around and to be familiar with the area.”
The other disruption Swanson had to deal with was an injury in his rookie season. Before he even played in a real game, he was hit in the face by a pitch during a simulated game on July 23 last year. He suffered a mild concussion and needed 14 stitches, and the mishap delayed his pro debut until Aug. 12. A lingering vestige of the injury is that Swanson wears a face guard on his batting helmet.
Swanson hit a respectable .289 for Hillsboro of the Class A (Short Season) Northwest League last season in 22 games once he got on the field.
“He barely got his feet wet,” Wheeler said.
But Swanson has gotten off to a torrid start after making the ambitious jump to the Mudcats of the Class A-Advanced Carolina League this season. In the first 14 games, the 6-foot, 175-pounder is eighth in the league in hitting (.333), first in doubles (8) and tied for second in hits (19). He has also performed well defensively, committing only one error. The Mudcats lead the league in double plays, with Swanson taking part in all but two.
Swanson is the 11th No. 1 overall pick to appear in the Carolina League and the first since Bryce Harper played for Potomac in 2014. Swanson is also the third one to play for the Mudcats since the baseball draft originated in 1965.
Both of the previous No. 1 picks played for the Mudcats when the franchise was a member of the Double-A Southern League. Pitcher Kris Benson, the first pick in 1996 out of Clemson by the Pittsburgh Pirates, began the 1997 season in Lynchburg before being promoted to Carolina. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez was the first pick by the Florida Marlins in 2000 and played for the Mudcats in 2003 before being traded to the Texas Rangers later that year.
One other Braves prospect was a No. 1 pick who played in the Carolina League. That was Chipper Jones, who suited up for the Durham Bulls in 1992 after the Braves drafted him in 1990.
If there is pressure attached to being the No. 1 pick and following in those footsteps, Swanson doesn’t appear to let it bother him. Despite the outsized expectations his draft status generates, he handles the attention easily. Following batting practice Tuesday after a dugout media interview, Swanson could be spotted patiently signing autographs for fans on his way to the clubhouse at Five County Stadium. After Wednesday’s Youth Day game, he was back signing autographs for the dozens of youngsters who ran the bases post-game.
“Outside expectations are what someone else expects you to do,” he said. “I’ve never liked the word pressure. Just stay within yourself, control what you can control.
“You can’t worry about results. It’s about having quality at-bats and staying in your routine day after day. My preparation each day takes care of the rest and will ultimately let me be the best version of myself. If you develop a winning attitude, the numbers will take care of themselves.”
At Vanderbilt, Swanson played in the tough Southeastern Conference, a league that produced four NCAA champions from 2009 to 2014. Vandy won the 2014 title, beating Virginia in the championship series, and the Commodores nearly repeated before falling to the Cavaliers in a rematch of the 2014 finals last year.
“Omaha was great,” Swanson said of the College World Series, “but college in general prepared me for this: going about your business on a daily basis, training, development. People might take that for granted.”
Swanson doesn’t take for granted the hard work that will be required of him. “You have to treat it like a business,” he said. “It’s an everyday thing. In college, everything is more micro managed. Now we’re professionals. It’s up to you to get your work done.”
Wheeler said he sees evidence of Swanson’s work ethic and leadership skills on a regular basis.
“He was here today at noon, riding the (exercise) bike, getting ready for tonight’s game,” the manager said. “Pressure is what you put on yourself. He wants to be the guy. There’s no pressure on him because he loves the game of baseball. He has a very bright future in front of him.”
No. 1 picks in Carolina League
No. 1 picks on Carolina Mudcats