The news itself is a bit stale: Ryan Sweeney signed a two-year, $3.5-million deal to stay with the Chicago Cubs nine days ago. At the time, I thought little of it. The terms of the deal suggest it’s nothing more than insurance, a depth addition, the shoring up of the outfield reserve corps. So, for that matter, does Sweeney’s career batting line, which includes a .385 slugging average, and his age—he’ll be 29 by Opening Day. It might well be that, and only that.
An item on Baseball Prospectus caught my eye today, though, and made me ponder Sweeney a bit more closely. The linked article is subscriber-only content, but I’ll bring the bare essentials out from behind the paywall:
Sweeney changed a lot since his time in Boston; he raised his hand slot, added bend to his knees, and traded a toe-tapping stride for a high leg kick. None of that means he’s unlocked his offensive potential, but it does mean there’s something to fuel hope beyond 200-odd plate appearances.
That’s a big deal. Power is the biggest thing missing from Sweeney’s game. He’s a usable center fielder, or a sparkling right fielder, and in either case, a good fit for the outfield at Wrigley Field. He has just 309 strikeouts in 2,112 career plate appearances, a miraculous number for anything more than a slap hitter in today’s strikeout-mad game. He walks about eight percent of the time, which (given the strikeout rate) works just fine.
The problem with Sweeney had always been the lack of even average power. Before 2013, he had come to the plate 1,900 times in MLB, collecting 102 doubles, 12 triples and just 14 home runs. That doubles-to-homers ratio is almost impossible to sustain.
It was a very small sample in which Sweeney flashed something more. He batted just 212 times for the Cubs, easing into a substantial role but missing major time with a broken rib. In that sample, though, about a third of a healthy season, he hit six homers (tying a career high, despite his sixth-most playing time), to go with 13 doubles and two triples. Having never slugged higher than .407 in the Majors before, he slugged .448. Therefore, when Anderson says the improvement might stem from something real and sustainable, Sweeney starts to look like an interesting player.
Sweeney was once famous (or infamous) for what scouts call five o’clock power—five o’clock being the typical time at which teams take batting practive before night games. If Sweeney’s new swing lets him bring the pop he hasn’t ever quite realized to bear in game action, that changes what he is, and what he’s worth.
It’s worth noting, more out of caution than celebration, that after years of utter futility against left-handed pitching, Sweeney hit .313/.365/.458 in just over 50 plate appearances against lefties in 2013. He only struck out seven times, which is encouraging, but most of that value comes from hits on balls in play. I would expect that to sag, and Sweeney to regress when facing lefties going forward.
For now, Sweeney has to be penciled in as the Cubs’ starting center fielder (or left fielder) for 2014. There remain many dominoes to fall, though. As it stands, Sweeney would join Junior Lake and Nate Schierholtz in the Cubs’ Opening Day outfield. Here’s the question: Is that how it should stay?
The Cubs are probably still a year from contention. They could pop up, given the upside of players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija and the whole bullpen, but the rest of their division is strong, so the smart money says they’ll need another year of development for their top prospects and incremental additions. Given that premise, it might be wise to stand pat, not throw around money before the talent it can buy has much utility and let the guys already in-house prove or disprove themselves for the future.
On the other hand, this might well be the last time for a long time that the Cubs have a protected first-round pick, and therefore, the ability to sign a top-tier free agent without surrendering their top selection. Besides, with Sweeney locked in for such a small amount for the next two seasons; Schierholtz presumably only in line for about $4-5 million in arbitration; and Lake a league-minimum guy, there’s plenty of room to spend a bit of money and upgrade.
For that matter, who says Schierholtz has to remain a Cub? His was a hot name at the July trade deadline, and despite a poor finish, he might still have real value on that market. Sweeney is not so different from Schierholtz as to preclude trading the latter and sliding Sweeney to right field.
Personally, I vote for keeping Schierholtz, but also adding to the outfield mix. I’m not sure any of the three incumbent regulars are viable as everyday players, unprotected from platoon exploitation, and with one forced to play center field. All of the really good prospective free agents in the outfield bat left-handed, which doesn’t help cover Sweeney or Schierholtz, but the opportunity might be there for Chicago to assemble a solid outfield with the pieces in place, plus a second-tier guy like Marlon Byrd or even Rajai Davis.Next post: Red Sox Score Early, Hold Off Tigers 4-3 to Take 3-2 ALCS Lead
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