The 2023 Major League Baseball free agent class has a major concentration of talent in two main areas: starting pitcher and shortstop. The Baltimore Orioles could arguably use an upgrade in both areas (though arguments could be made for Jorge Mateo) and should be able to afford both.
The Mount Rushmore of free agent shortstops is clearly defined: Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Boagaerts, and Dansby Swanson. All four are in the prime of their respective careers and represent the elite at their position; all four finished in the top 10 of fWAR among shortstops. The Orioles offense would instantly be upgraded by the acquisition of any of them but for this exercise, let’s focus on Dansby Swanson.
While much of the attention is on free agent shortstops Carlos Correa and Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson would be a fantastic addition to the Baltimore Orioles.
Swanson may not be viewed as the superstar Correa or Turner is, make no mistake: Dansby Swanson is unbelievably good! Of the four high profile free agent shortstops, Swanson accumulated the most fWAR (6.4) which trailed only Francisco Lindor among all shortstops. He had a higher wOBA than Turner and Bogaerts. His 99 runs scored were more than any other shortstop besides Turner.
Swanson’s batted ball profile is as impressive and backs up his production a la Diesel to Shawn Michaels. The average exit velocity has increased incrementally over his seven year career and finally eclipsed 90 MPH in 2022. His newfound power is legit and Camden Yards wouldn’t nerf it as much as you think – he would have finished with just three fewer home runs playing his home games there (side note: it’s still wild to me that we now discuss this ballpark in these terms). 46.3% of the balls Swanson hit were harder than 95 MPH, placing him in the 82nd percentile of qualified hitters. Line drives had a .631 batting average in 2022, and Dansby Swanson hits an above average amount of them.
Swanson loves to hack, specifically on the first pitch of at-bats. He does so in nearly 40% of his plate appearances (MLB average: 29.5%), and it’s easy to see why when you see his slash line against first pitches: .366/.379/.591, nine doubles, and four home runs. It makes sense in theory – pitchers generally throw fastballs on 0-0, so why not try to jump on it and square it up?
Swanson destroys any kind of fastball you provide, with a .416 wOBA against sinkers and a .381 wOBA against four seamers. He also holds his own against sliders, contributing a total of 6 runs to his team’s run expectancy when facing the pitch.
Another thing to consider: Dansby Swanson’s shift splits. With Major League Baseball stepping in and banning the shift as we know it, could he potentially tap into some extra production, namely batting average? He was only shifted against roughly a third of the time which is about league average, but let’s take a look:
Dansby Swanson – Shift: .289 wOBA
Dansby Swanson – No Shift: .360 wOBA
There will likely be an increase in average league wide but still, a Swanson that hits .275-.280 instead of .250 is almost a whole new player.
The one drawback with Swanson’s offensive game is that you won’t receive a lot in the way of plate discipline, which will limit his batting average regardless of the shift rules. He is very much a free swinger, striking out in nearly a quarter of the plate appearances throughout his career. His swing and miss “tool” is elite, placing him in the 15th percentile among qualified MLB hitters. Swanson actually doesn’t chase much outside of the strike zone, but a guy with such an aggressive approach is bound to have some swing and miss in their game.
Defense is where Swanson sets himself apart from not just the other three high profile free agent shortstops, but from most defenders in the game regardless of position and is arguably even better than Baltimore’s own Mateo. 268 players of all positions qualified for Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average leaderboard, and only one accumulated more OAA than Swanson (former Baltimore Orioles 2B Jonathan Schoop). He prevented sixteen runs, trailing only Schoop. The lack of arm strength is wholly compensated by Swanson’s range and overall athleticism, especially on plays directly in front of him and to his right.
Carlos Correa has been a darling of Orioles Twitter for over a year and makes sense given the connections to Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal, but Swanson would be an excellent choice for the Baltimore Orioles. He is not the hitter the other three free agent shortstops are, but is above average and his batted ball statistics suggest he will continue to be. His defense will make him an immensely valuable player even if his offensive statistics decline and could move to second base if his range diminishes near the end of the contract.
Spotrac projects that Swanson will receive a 6 year, $148 million contract with an average annual value slightly less than what is projected for Bogaerts, Turner, and Correa. Could Elias decide to get crazy, go after one of the top dollar free agent pitchers like Carlos Rodón and save a few million by going for Swanson instead of the other three? That might be too hopeful and idealistic but regardless, Dansby Swanson would be an excellent fit for the Baltimore Orioles.