Schultz: Alex Anthopoulos says Dansby Swanson tried, but Braves couldn’t close the gap

ATLANTA — One year after winning the World Series, the Braves won 101 games in the regular season this year but did not win a playoff round. We’ll never know if this had anything to do with letting Freddie Freeman walk in free agency, impacting not only the lineup but clubhouse chemistry, but these are among the questions on the table when a team falls woefully short of its objective.

One year after Freeman’s exit, the Braves doubled down on their self-imposed budget by letting Dansby Swanson leave. Their reported final contract offer to their starting shortstop and All-Star of $100 million for six years fell so short of the Cubs’ $177 million for seven that Swanson had no choice but to leave his hometown team.

The final out of the Braves’ 2021 World Series was made by Swanson fielding a ground ball and throwing across the diamond to Freeman at first. At least that memory is preserved digitally because both players are now gone.

Alex Anthopoulos has had far more hits than misses as the Braves’ general manager. He has been the architect of five NL East division titles and a championship in his five years. So he has earned the benefit of the doubt. But even if it’s reasonable to conclude Swanson’s open-market value far surpassed what the Braves believed they could afford, it doesn’t dismiss the fact that Atlanta has lost two elite players in free agency in consecutive seasons. It’s a bad look.

One thing I’ve always respected about Anthopoulos is his willingness to answer tough questions, and this subject was no different. He told me Saturday night after news of Swanson’s deal with the Cubs broke that he wanted to hold off on commenting until Chicago made it official. That news conference came Wednesday.

Anthopoulos then opened up to The Athletic about how this happened and the potential impact on the Braves. He praised Swanson frequently and more than once said Swanson “was willing to take a lot less” to remain with the Braves and stay in his hometown but that the gap between Swanson’s counterproposal and the Cubs’ offer was too great.

He also for the first time said he and Swanson spoke “more than once” in the offseason. The last time was Friday — the day before Swanson and the Cubs came to an agreement. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

So let’s get right to it: Why didn’t you want Dansby Swanson?

Wow, strong question, strong comment. I don’t agree with that. He got an incredible contract from a great organization, and we weren’t close to it. That’s what he was worth when he hit the open market. He was an incredible player for us, in the clubhouse and on the field. We’re always trying to manage short term and long term. The better players become, the closer they get to free agency, the harder it is to keep these guys. But I will say this: Dansby made every effort to find a way to stay in Atlanta. We had conversations in the summer. He was willing to take a lot less than what he got. That’s important. But we have to manage in our minds short term and long term, and we have to make sure we have enough payroll to allocate a full 26. He deserves everything he got, but at a certain point, it doesn’t make sense for us . It’s hard because you’re losing a phenomenal human being and a phenomenal player.

It’s widely believed your offer topped out at six years for $100 million, and he countered at one point at six for $140 million. Are those numbers accurate?

I’ve never gotten into specifics. What I can say is we tried to come up with something that works for us, and it’s hard when it’s that far south of what a player’s value was in free agency. Dansby tried hard and was willing to work with the team, but when you’re discussing six years, seven years and so on, you still have to plan out your roster, and you don’t want to have too much money planned out to a small group of players or that you have to trade players. Everything we do is through the lens of having as deep a 26- and 40-man roster as we can, and as these players get better, they become more expensive. But from his standpoint, he did everything he could. He was committed, sincere and was more than willing to take a lot less. It’s important that everyone is aware of that. But even then the gap was too great.

You’ve given several lucrative long-term deals recently, including to two rookies, Michael Harris and Spencer Strider. But it seemed you balked at Swanson and on the heels of what happened with Freddie Freeman last year.

They’re two different situations. Dansby was in the last year of his contract, six months from free agency. (Harris and Strider) were six years away from free agency. It’s night and day. They haven’t even gone through arbitration. Our payroll is in the top 10, but we’re not 1, 2 or 3. … There’s a lot of players every offseason that every team would love to have, but at what expense? You have to balance all those things, and it’s hard. The greatest challenge we have is, rather than having a certain time window of winning, we’re attempting to be competitive every year. It’s hard because if your young players have success, they will get more expensive, and they’ll be harder to retain. You have to make tough calls. We’re trying to give ourselves a chance to win a World Series every year.

Dansby’s value went up enormously this year. Before Freeman’s 2021 season, Liberty Media wanted to wait to see if fans returned post-pandemic before committing to an offer. In both cases you would agree it backfired on you and the Braves that neither was signed to an extension before their final seasons in Atlanta.

I don’t think they’re comparable, other than they’re two great players. In fairness to Freddie, I don’t want to rehash any of that. Ultimately, we felt we were competitive with our offers to Freddie, but he ended up getting a great contract. He got $162 million. However you want to slice it, he got more than what we offered. But it was a much smaller gap. This was a much more significant gap. There’s no comparison for me, other than they’re both elite players. I compared this negotiation more to Josh Donaldson. We wanted to keep him. We had a young player in Austin Riley, who we really liked, but we were prepared to have him wait his turn if we could sign Josh back. But we were a lot less than where the Twins were. Very similar here in that Dansby got an incredible deal that he deserves, and we have a young player, Vaughn Grissom, who we think in the long run will be a very good player, we don’t know when.

Riley and Matt Olson’s contracts expire when they’re 35. Was there hesitancy in signing Swanson to a contract that would pay him at a high rate at 34 or 35?

No. At the end of the day, it just comes down to the guaranteed dollars, same as Josh Donaldson. There wasn’t an issue beyond that.

When Dansby phoned you recently, was he just seeking clarity on your view?

I spoke to him more than once throughout the offseason, and we had very good, candid conversations. I’m not going to get into the details or specifics out of respect for him. But my view of his intent was that it was always him trying to find a way to get a deal done.

Was there a point in the last conversation when you or he basically said, “OK, we’re going to have to move on?”

It wasn’t said explicitly, but it was understood.

Dansby Swanson was drafted No. 1 by Arizona and helped lead Atlanta to a World Series title. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When was that?

I believe Friday night. It was understood. (News of the agreement with the Cubs broke the following night.)

What were his emotions?

He’s very professional. I have so much respect for him and for the way he has handled everything in Atlanta — the expectations, becoming a leader in the clubhouse, adversity, challenges, going through a free agent year and always being about the team. Not once has Dansby Swanson had a selfish bone in his body in all the years that I’ve been with him. It didn’t matter where he hit in the lineup. It was always about whatever helps the team win. I respect him as a man, how he goes about life, the decisions he makes. It’s why he’s so respected in our room, our organization and throughout the league.

Do you worry about leadership in your clubhouse?

My job as a GM is to be concerned with every aspect of the club. I also know you have guys who get hurt, guys who leave as free agents or get traded. You have to find a way to continue to win games. We have a really good room, and it’s because of the example guys like Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis and Dansby Swanson set. They’re not here, but they have set the tone. We still have really good people in that clubhouse. When someone goes down or leaves, we have people step up, and that has to happen in an organic way. … But there’s no doubt — when you lose great players, on the field or off the field, you’re going to feel it.

Following that up, when there’s a perception that you let two great players walk two years in a row, do you think that looks bad?

I don’t look at things that way. We had high-profile elite players who were set up to be free agents. It happens. That’s just the reality. You’re going to have turnover no matter what. You want to keep as many players as you can. But you also realize you need to have depth. If it doesn’t happen, we’re not going to win divisions and get to the playoffs.

This probably can’t be answered, yet, but does losing Swanson make you a lesser team?

Dansby is an elite shortstop, and to think that you can replace what he brings on and off the field would be completely misguided. But he would be the first one to tell you it’s about team. We’ve had All-Stars and Silver Sluggers and Gold Glove winners, and you need everybody, all 26 and 40. You’re hopeful other guys can do a little bit more. So maybe we get a little more production out of the offense — our outfield, for example. Maybe we get a little more production out of our rotation or our bullpen. Hopefully, you can still be that competitive team that can win the division and hopefully a World Series. But individually, with how good he is and what he means, you can’t replace a guy like that.

He defines what it is to have “intangibles,” right?

No doubt. And it’s real, it’s authentic, it’s sincere. It just comes so naturally for him. Guys follow him, he leads; it’s not contrived. He lives his life that way each day. Look at the different places he hit in the lineup — eighth, seventh, second. Some guys are very particular about where they hit in the order, and sometimes it becomes a political thing. Not once in my five years with Dansby Swanson did I ever hear one gripe, one complaint, about where he hit in the lineup or what he was doing. He always had really thoughtful ideas, where it was about our defensive positioning or the roster. It was never about himself. I don’t think he came to me one time with something about himself.

In a press conference today, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said when they talked to Swanson it was more like they were being interviewed. Swanson asked questions about what the organization was going to do to build a winning team, about nutrition, the strength and conditioning program and also how they would make him better.

That’s him to a tee. It’s real. There’s a level of respect that comes with that. That’s why he was the first pick in the draft. It’s why they won in college. It’s why he was part of a lot of winning teams in Atlanta. It’s not an accident. Winning follows him.

The plan is for Grissom or Orlando Arcia at shortstop?

They’ll compete, and ultimately (manager Brian Snitker) will make that call. We’ll see how they do in the spring. And whoever is the starter doesn’t mean they’ll be able to keep the job. Where it goes from there, their play will impact that.

On another subject, what are the plans for Marcell Ozuna?

I expected him to be on the roster in spring training.

What about after spring training?

Ask me in spring training.

(Top photo of Dansby Swanson: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)


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