There recently has been an enormous amount of talk around the blogosphere about how the Twins are mishandling Kevin Slowey, which they are, but all of these posts got me to thinking. As we all know the teenagers’ mind is a dark and scary place, but at some point in the middle of the last night I had an epiphany; Free Ryan Sweeney (Next Year). Now before I make the argument for why Ryan Sweeney I would like to remind everyone that you can follow me on twitter at Ryan_Rigato or read the inspiration for today’s discussion in the form of yesterday’s Oakland Athletics’ offseason review.
Right from the start I realize that many of you are currently riding the wave of anti-Sweeney sentiment. As an Athletics fan, I understand your frustration with his career so far, but Sweeney is an extremely long way from being considered a bust. Obviously, we will have Coco Crisp manning Center Field this season, hopefully he will be able to stay healthy and maintain the offensive production that he showed in just less than half a season last year. However, there is one problem with Coco Crisp manning center, that this is his last year under contract. This puts the A’s in a tough position, because if Crisp performs well in his walk year he would probably want more money than the A’s could offer, or Crisp might just bolt for greener pastures(Pun intended), simply for a chance to play in a bigger market or a better stadium. Even worse, if Crisp performs poorly no one in the A’s front office would want to spend market value on a soon to be 33 year old center fielder coming off of a down year. Before we discuss why Sweeney makes so much sense for the Athletics in center field next year, let’s take a journey in our hot tub time machine back to 2007 when Sweeney was a stud prospect with the White Sox.
The White Sox drafted Sweeney in the second round of the 2003 MLB amateur draft out of Cedar Rapids High school in Iowa. Similar to what the White Sox do with most of their top draft picks, Sweeney was put on the fast track and was auditioning for the starting center field job in 2007 at the ripe age of 22. As a prospect, many teams did not know whether he was better as a left-handed pitcher or an outfielder. Since entering professional baseball all that Sweeney has done is hit, with the only exception being that he has never hit for much power. In fact the 2007 prospect handbook described this concern by stating that Sweeney owned a career high "13 home runs in the minors." Eventually, Sweeney was traded for Nick Swisher along with Gio Gonzalez and Fautino De Los Santos. Three years later, we now see what Sweeney has become as a major league ballplayer.
It is easy to understand why many people do not appreciate Sweeney’s talents, his .089 Isolated Power from last year is nearly half of fan favorite Yuniesky Betancourt’s (A.K.A. the only true sub-replacement level player in the game today.) Add this to the fact that Carlos Zambrano mashes for a career ISO of .151 and you basically see a man with the power of Adam Dunn swinging a pair of chop sticks. There are other ways in which to gain value as a baseball player though, being a quick left handed hitter whose strides are long enough to leap across the Grand Canyon in one bound; Ryan Sweeney has been a consistently high BABIP hitter with a career average around .324. As a high-BABIP, low walk and low power hitter, Sweeney’s potential is limited but that does not mean he is useless. In fact, Sweeney has had a career woba at .321 and Marcel is projecting him to be around a .328 woba this upcoming year. This is right around or slightly above league average once you consider the league-wide downward trend in offensive production. Many people have looked at this offensive production as a disappointment, it is disappointing for a right-fielder; however there is also the defensive spectrum that must be accounted for.
In center-field a .328 woba would be palatable, the question then becomes, how will Sweeney perform on the defensive side of the game? In right field, his defense has been phenomenal culminating with Ultimate Zone Rating pegging him at 20 runs above average! While that is really optimistic about Sweeney’s defense, even using the cool new aggregate ratings available on the Fangraphs website places Sweeney at 11 runs above average. Since he has only logged around 850 career innings in center field all defensive metrics should be considered as statistical noise until a larger sample size is created. Ultimately when predicting his future defense, we have to go through the scouting reports of fans and the "professional guessers" over at Baseball America. Back in 2007 Baseball America stated that Sweeney can handle all three outfield positions defensively, which I believe is true today.
When evaluating which players should start at any position, front offices must weigh both the short and long term benefits of the players they choose. While I agree that Coco Crisp should be the starting center fielder for the Oakland Athletics in 2011, I also recognize that as a small market team there is no way I can expect the A’s to fork up big money to lock him up long term if he plays well. What many people do not understand about Ryan Sweeney is how underrated his skill set is. He makes a bunch of contact and fields well but has never excelled in any other aspect of the game. Since he does not put up the flashy stolen base numbers like Juan Pierre or mash homers like Carlos Gullien; Sweeney does not draw national attention. Which is perfect for a small market team like the Athletics because Sweeney does have two years of team controlled arbitration left which will keep him from becoming a free agent until after the 2013 season. Thus, whether it is this year due to an injury to Coco Crisp or next year after Crisp’s likely departure in free agency; I say FREE RYAN SWEENEY!