GM's OFFICE: The Best player in the deal

I know we’re still a month or two away from prime trading season in fantasy baseball, but here’s an early reminder of an age-old axiom: The team that acquires the best player in the deal, usually wins the deal.

At times, the best player in the deal is obvious. Almost without question, anytime you acquire the likes of a Trout, Harper, Goldschmidt, Kershaw, you can be fairly sure that you’ve made out okay. The elite players in the game are the easy ones to identify. But there are times when that "best player" might not be so obvious. Which is why we spend all the time we do trying to seek out those under appreciated or lesser-known players before they become best-player-in-the-deal no-brainers. 

And this is not just a fantasy baseball rule to live by, but one that applies in real-life, too. 

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Dansby Swanson (SS, ATL), as you recall, was picked #1 overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2015 MLB draft. An advanced college shortstop, Swanson was projected to stay at the position in the pros, and his polished, all-around game against the best competition in college baseball meant that he would likely not need much time in the minors. Though a beaning incident in rookie ball cost him at bats last summer, he was still seen as the Diamondbacks SS of the future, and had an easy lock on the #1 prospect tag in that system.

That changed when, during the winter meetings, Arizona traded Swanson, along with OF Ender Inciarte and fellow RHP prospect Aaron Blair, to the Atlanta Braves for RHP Shelby Miller and a minor league pitcher. At the time, the deal was widely criticized on many fronts as an extreme overpay for Miller, a young, promising, but still inconsistent pitcher. Though one of our greatest pitfalls in evaluating MLB trades as enthused fans is to equate our limited knowledge with any MLB front office—who have access to a plethora of scouting reports, analytics, injury and other data—this one still seemed fairly clear. The package sure seemed like a ton to give up.

But what if Miller was the best player in the deal? Perhaps then the trade becomes defensible, either from an MLB or fantasy baseball standpoint. The problem is, Miller is not the best player in the deal.

After watching him in two games this week with High-A Carolina (Atlanta) as they visited Wilmington (Royals), I’ve become convinced that Swanson is the best player in that deal. Swanson is a player fantasy owners—and baseball fans—should be excited about, and soon should become a fixture in the Braves infield and has the potential to become an elite-level player.

Swanson is not an imposing figure—the roster lists him at 6-0, 175—and one could even term him as "skinny." He’s not a big shortstop in the Correa or Seager mode. Though he’s unlikely to post the power numbers of those two, there’s plenty of hit tool and a surprising punch in his bat.

The first thing one notices is the efficiency of Swanson’s right-handed swing. From a quiet setup, the bat whips easily through the zone, barreling pitch after pitch. The swing looks natural and effortless, and comes from a wide and balanced stance in the box. With barely a stride, Swanson trusts his wrists and hands to control the bat to meet to both pitcher’s pitches (that he spoils) and pitcher’s mistakes (that he crushes). In both batting practice and in games over the two days (10 plate appearances), he consistently made hard, solid contact. While he'll hit some home runs at the major league level, he will likely primarily fill the gaps with extra base hits. 

To go along with the hit tool, Swanson exhibited an excellent batting eye and pitch recognition at the plate. He worked deep counts, and repeatedly refused to expand the zone with two strikes, took pitches just off the plate. Especially in the lower minors, hitters can tend to jump at close pitches; Swanson was able to identify balls that ended up out of the strike zone and let them go against both below-average and quality pitching. You could just tell Swanson was tracking the ball well and confident he would get a pitch to hit at some point in his at bats. It's a skill that will help make him a successful major-league hitter, and should ease his transition to the highest level once that promotion comes. 

Swanson is an excellent baserunner, both out of the box (4.18 time to first on one grounder) and once on (one stolen base, plus several times on first in which required the pitcher's attention. One of the more impressive offensive moments was a hustle double in the first game. He lined what looked like a solid single into right-center field. With the center fielder busting over to cut the ball off, Swanson never slowed around first, and forced a bad throw to the first-base side of bag, as he dove headlong and safely past the fielder. While a major-league outfielder probably makes a more accurate throw, Swanson’s speed put pressure on the fielder to deliver that perfect throw, which he couldn’t. Swanson’s footspeed and instincts combined to get him that double. 

Instinct is an apt description of Swanson’s shortstop play, also. Much like his hitting, Swanson makes the game look easy when he’s on the field. There will continue to be discussions very soon on how the Braves two big middle infield prospects, Swanson and Ozzie Albies (currently at Double-A) will co-exist once both are ready for Atlanta, but there's no doubt Swanson can handle the position. His actions are smooth; he has the necessary range and arm to handle the challenging plays at the big-league level. 

He made all the routine plays with ease, but two defensive gems stood out. First, a scorching grounder was hit to Swanson’s right. Taking a step to position himself for a backhand play, the ball took a bad final hop and kicked up. Like lightning, Swanson’s glove followed the ball perfectly; he caught it and unleashed a strong, accurate throw to make the out easily.

His second highlight play started with a runner on first an nobody out. The batter hit a high chopper over the mound; a far cry from a double-play ball. Swanson moved to the second-base bag, and waited for the ball to come down. When it did, it ended up on the first-base side of the keystone. Swanson held the bag as he grabbed the ball with his glove, and after a split-second transfer unleashed a bullet to first base to just beat the runner. It was as difficult a 6-3 double play as you’ll see, and Swanson pulled it off with ease. His combination of instincts and physical tools in the field points to a plus-defender future in MLB.

Of course, there are still a few things to work on. He didn’t take charge of a high pop-up behind third base, the kind of play that is easiest for a shortstop to take, and it fell for a bloop double between the SS, 3B and left fielder. And he did swing through a couple mid-90s fastballs when he faced Wilmington’s best pitching prospect, flame-thrower Josh Staumont. But so did a lot of his Carolina teammates.

Though it was only two games, Swanson still has to perform consistently and conquer a couple more levels before we see him in Atlanta, but the completeness of his performance says that it might all happen sooner (perhaps as soon as August or September) rather than later. And the tools, both with the bat and glove in this High-A performance, should translate well to a major-league career. 

With those caveats, and the benefits of seeing Dansby Swanson play so well in April, we circle back to fantasy baseball and the trade season to come with a couple reminders. First, the case of Dansby Swanson seems to be an extreme real-life example where best player in the deal may in fact be a minor leaguer. For those in keeper leagues, targeting these a top talent like Swanson as trades heat up just might make sense. Second, while we generally encourage the practice of using hyped minor leaguers as trade chips to win a fantasy championship, Swanson’s case (like Carlos Correa last year) could be the exception, rather than the rule. By the look of these two games, Swanson is a keeper in the truest sense of the word. In the end, it all depends on the state of your own squad, and how much that lure of “discovering” that next elite player means in your format (or, quite frankly, to your ego). 

Go forth and trade well.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.