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Durability and redundancy: In praise of Dansby Swanson

Here are some football and hockey analogies that show why Swanson is so valuable to the Cubs.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t lie: while I’d love to be fully focused on the Cubs right now, I can’t shake my interest in other sports at key positions on their calendar. In particular, I’m thinking about (a) the NHL trade deadline, and (b) the Bears’ approach to free agency and the draft. While the headline of this article indicates it’s about Dansby Swanson, I want to set this up properly, so bear with me a moment while I talk about the NHL and NFL. Trust me, it’ll make sense.

For reasons that would take thousands of words to explain, your writer is a fan of the Vancouver Canucks, something that was especially unfortunate a decade ago as the Canucks and Blackhawks were ensnared in the NHL’s fiercest rivalry. The relevant part of this story: the Canucks entered the 2022-23 season with only one goalie capable of carrying a starer’s load. Thatcher Demko announced himself as a top-flight option in the COVID bubble, grabbing the No. 1 job and running with it. Unfortunately, Demko hurt his groin on December 1 and just returned to action this week, at which point the Canucks’ season was already lost. They didn’t have a viable replacement on the roster and, when that hole was exposed, the team was toast.

The Bears find themselves hunting in a transformative offseason, hunting for viable NFL starters on a roster devoid of them. They’ll search for linemen on both sides of the ball, particularly defensive linemen capable of pressuring the opposing quarterback after finishing dead last in the league with a paltry 20 sacks, narrowly eclipsing the total of just Robert Quinn from 2021. A player who figures to be of immense interest: New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport. Davenport is nearly the complete package. He comes with a pedigree as the 14th selection in the 2018 NFL Draft and he has the frame that the Bears covet at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. Davenport has been extremely productive. That hasn’t always come in the form of actual sacks — Davenport was credited with just half a sack in 2022 — but he’s been a top-20 edge defender at generating pressure during his time in the NFL. Davenport is productive...

...but only when he plays. Here’s the rub: Davenport has missed time in every season of his career thanks to a nonstop barrage of injuries, tallying 416, 532, 374, 437, and 490 snaps over his five seasons. For reference, during his marvelous run in Chicago, Khalil Mack tallied 755, 925, 894, and 315 snaps, missing a pair of games in his debut season in 2018 and half of the season in his final run in 2021. Despite missing half of 2021, Mack outsnapped Davenport so significantly (2,889 to 2,249) that Davenport would need to set a new career high (640) in 2023 just to equal Mack even if the former Bear and current Charger doesn’t suit up.

Nobody doubts that Davenport is good at football. In fact, he’s among the best in the world at what he does and, entering his age-27 season, he should be in his football prime. Yet many teams won’t even consider him as a free agent because he can’t stay on the field.

Which brings us to Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s journey to Chicago hasn’t been quite as clean as one might expect for a former No. 1 overall pick. He entered the 2015 MLB Draft as a surefire top-five pick with four plus tools, but it was his below-average power that held back the overall profile; yet here we are, with the Cubs signing Swanson coming off of a season in which he launched 25 homers, down slightly from 27 in 2021. Swanson was infamously dealt to his hometown Atlanta Braves months after signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Shelby Miller deal that ultimately ended Dave Stewart’s front office career, yet Swanson struggled mightily to find his way offensively in Atlanta, producing a miserable .245/.318/.385 line from his 2016 debut through the end of 2019.

To his credit, however, Swanson (a) continued to develop his offensive game, and (b) save for relatively minor wrist and heel injuries in 2018 and 2019, respectively, kept himself available with his elite glove. This enabled Swanson’s 2020-22 breakout, acheived during a span of time over which he missed only two games.

I’m a huge fan of acquiring overqualified players and putting them in positions to provide redundancy for the roster. Cubs fans are plenty familiar with this approach employed by the Cubs with Javier Báez and Addison Russell during the last competitive window. By having two plus defensive shortstops on the roster and in the lineup, the club enjoyed (a) spectacular defense at second base, and (b) the knowledge that the backup shortstop was certainly qualified to handle the gig if necessary.

Signing Swanson creates that same redundancy for the 2023 club. But more than just creating a redundancy on the roster, Swanson brings a durable, reliable shortstop to a roster with a similarly talented shortstop — Nico Hoerner — who comes with a lengthy and troubling injury history. Without Swanson, an injury to Hoerner would force a square peg like Christopher Morel or Zach McKinstry into a round hole.

But that’s a problem for the hypothetical 2023 Cubs. The actual 2023 Cubs have two quality shortstops, one of whom offers a solid history of durability. Hopefully the Cubs won’t need to rely on Swanson as an insurance policy should Hoerner suffer another injury in 2023, instead relying on stellar defense from Swanson and Hoerner up the middle all year. But if Hoerner goes down, it won’t sink the ship. That’s deserving of praise.