Twelve years ago, the Atlanta Braves had a hometown star who was anointed the next Dale Murphy. Jeff Francoeur was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, “The Natural.” It didn’t take long before Francoeur jerseys popped up all over the state.
Then seven years ago, the Braves had another hometown star. Jason Heyward was compared to Dave Parker and was considered Atlanta’s next best player. Once again fans fell in love with someone from Georgia playing for the state team.
Then last year, the Braves had Dansby Swanson come up to Atlanta. Unlike Francoeur and Heyward, Swanson had been acquired in a trade. Like the other two, Swanson was an Atlanta-area prospect who was heavily promoted as the next face of the franchise.
The irony of these three players is they are attached to another player who might have been considered inferior to them. Francoeur’s best friend was Brian McCann, while Heyward’s other baseball half was Freddie Freeman.
McCann was always in Francoeur’s shadow. Francoeur had the billboards, was promoted on TV and on the cover of SI. Same for Freeman, who came up a year after Heyward but was not considered the talent of his good buddy.
And now, Swanson is playing in Atlanta’s middle infield with Ozzie Albies. We’ve waited for these two to play together for over a year, and the freak injury to Johan Camargo opened the door for Swanson to get his job back and team with Albies.
Francoeur, Heyward and Swanson were overhyped and overpromoted. They were labeled as the kings of Atlanta baseball before they even played a major league game. The first two had careers that did not meet the high expectations, and unfortunately, Swanson’s bad year makes you wonder if he’s going down the same road.
There’s no reason to give up on Swanson yet. Sure, he’s struggled and needs to get on track. The Braves are going to be patient with Swanson, since they’ve invested so much in him.
It is ironic, however, that these hometown kids seem to have trouble. Is it too stressful to play regularly in front of friends and family? Is it too much to deal with, to get tickets all the time and worry about who made it to their seats, while you’re trying to drive in a runner from second base?
What makes this even more strange is the “other” players. Francoeur bounced around and played for eight teams. He’s retired now, but McCann has been a star. And while Heyward certainly can play defense, he’s nowhere near the offensive player most predicted. Freeman, however, is Atlanta’s best player and has become a star.
Could Albies follow that same track? It’s obviously very early, but Albies has made a good early impression — just like Swanson did a year ago. It would almost follow the trend that the hometown player who was promoted from the time he made it to Atlanta would be overshadowed by someone else.
Albies has always been compared to Jose Altuve because of his size, or lack of it. If Albies can become anything like Altuve, Swanson will have a hard time being better than that.
The Braves hope Albies and Swanson can be their middle-infield combination for years to come. Let’s hope the Braves swap them out a bit, with Albies playing at short and Swanson getting time at second base. They need to see where they fit best in the Atlanta infield.
Again, don’t give up on Swanson. He’s a talented player with skills. Let’s hope Albies being with him in Atlanta will motivate Swanson. They developed a good friendship and chemistry last year, and we’ve all waited a while to see them together.
But if Swanson doesn’t show why he was the top pick in the MLB draft in 2015, Albies could become the next McCann and Freeman. It’s time the Braves hold off on promoting the hometown kids like they are destined for Cooperstown. With Swanson’s struggles, it is a logical topic. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on these kids. Just let them play ball. If Swanson does that, with Albies by his side, maybe he’ll be OK.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.