Dansby Swanson has been exactly what the Cubs paid for
There’s a strong case to be made that Jon Lester is the greatest free agent signing in Cubs franchise history.
He helped change the culture at the corner of Clark and Addison, bringing a World Series back to the North Side of Chicago and pitching like an ace for most of his 6 years with the Cubs.
But it’s easy to forget that Lester’s Cubs career actually got off to a rough start after inking the $155 million pact. He was 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA through his first month in Chicago before turning things around.
Lester’s path is actually fairly common around baseball — when a star player signs a big free agent contract, they struggle in Year 1 to live up to expectations.
That hasn’t been the case at all with Dansby Swanson.
“Dansby has handled a new contract better than probably anybody I’ve ever seen, being around personally,” David Ross said.
Ross’ first season in Chicago was also 2015, so he watched as Lester settled in after April of that year and turned in a very good campaign (11-12, 3.34 ERA, 2.8 WAR).
The Cubs manager has been around the big leagues for the last two decades and knows how difficult it is to live up to expectations right away in a new city on a new team.
Take the shortstop crop from last offseason.
Carlos Correa (6 years, $200 million with Minnesota) is having the worst season of his career with a .229 average and .709 OPS plus some diminished defensive metrics.
Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million with San Diego) is having his worst offensive season since 2017 — and that’s despite a solid second half.
Trea Turner (11 years, $300 million with Philadelphia) has come on very strong the last month but as recently as Aug. 3, he was hitting .235/.290/.368 (.657 OPS) and he’s already made more errors this season than any other year of his career.
Swanson’s contract came in south of all three of those guys in terms of total dollars (7 years, $177 million) yet he has been a consistent presence all season. He was the only one of the four shortstops to make the All-Star team and he has been unquestionably more valuable than the rest of the group:
2023 WAR (FanGraphs):
Swanson — 4.8
Turner — 3.8
Bogaerts — 3.5
Correa — 1.0
A big part of Swanson’s value comes from his stellar and steady defense, as he showed off in Wednesday’s game:
Dansby. Belli. GOLD. pic.twitter.com/FvkJPMDQ1L— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) September 13, 2023
Swanson leads all MLB defenders (regardless of position) with 18 Outs Above Average and looks to be on track for his second straight NL Gold Glove Award.
On the offensive end, Swanson has his highest walk rate since 2017 (10.6%) while displaying power (20 homers) and producing runs (74 RBI, 72 runs) from the shortstop position.
How has he been able to find success while living up to the pressure of a mega contract?
“He’s focused on us winning,” Ross said. “And not just this team, but the organization. I mean, Jed [Hoyer] walks by around the trade deadline, he was in his ear.”
As Hoyer’s front office was determining their path at the trade deadline, it was Swanson repeatedly talking to the Cubs president of baseball operations, vying for the team to add to — not subtract from — the roster.
From the food room inside the clubhouse to the dugout during games, Swanson is always trying to find an edge. He picks Ross’ brain about how to line up defensively late in games with a 1-run lead and he talks to outfielders about where he wants to receive the ball on cutoffs in certain situations.
“He’s just wired [the right way],” Ross said. “Mentally, he thinks about the right things. He’s thinking about winning plays, winning situations. He comes to me the other day and talks about game-calling, game management stuff that I love. And we have a conversation in Pittsburgh about things I’ve talked to Miggy [Amaya] about.
“He sees all aspects of the game. He’s not just absorbed with his performance. He’s pissed when he’s not doing well but he’s also focused on the W and he’s fine if he goes home and we get a win. He feels really good about that. Those are some of the things that stand out to me.”
Swanson has helped affect all aspects of the organization.
Entering Thursday’s off-day, the Cubs are firmly in a playoff spot. Even with the series loss in Colorado and a 4.5-game deficit in the division, the Cubs hold the second Wild Card position, just behind the Phillies and ahead of the Diamondbacks, Reds, Giants and Marlins.
This after falling to 10 games below .500 early in June.
Hoyer took Swanson’s advice and added at the deadline, trading for infielder Jeimer Candelario and reliever José Cuas.
The team has taken off over the last couple of months, buoyed by a deep lineup and a top-notch defense — of which Swanson is at the forefront.
But the Cubs are in the playoff race in mid-September because of Swanson’s contributions off the field, too.
“There’s a lot of guys in that room that have helped us mentally,” Ross said. “But I think Dansby, just the way he is built and the things he talks about has been a real culture change for us as far as what’s the focus?
“I think that’s probably one of the more important signings I’ve felt in a while — probably in a long, long time. Hopefully that continues to pan out but just in Year 1, it’s a really, really good presence in that locker room.”
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