By Meghan Montemurro
CHICAGO – The last time Ryan Sweeney found himself at Triple-A to start the season, he was a 22-year-old, No. 1-rated prospect in the White Sox minor league system on the cusp of a potentially great career.
Six years and myriad of injuries later, Sweeney is fighting for his baseball future during the Cubs’ final 22 games of the season. Sweeney’s year hasn’t gone as planned from starting at Triple-A Iowa, where he spent the first month of the season, to a fractured rib that sidelined him 56 games. But the adversity he’s faced hasn’t derailed Sweeney.
“I just kind of had a chip on my shoulder having to start off in Triple-A , not having been there in a long time,” Sweeney said.
[Cubs notebook: Rookie Junior Lake draws praise from Sveum]
A free agent this offseason, Sweeney, 28, is still in the prime of his career and eager to prove he can be an everyday outfielder. When he’s been able to stay healthy and get regular opportunities, Sweeney has put together solid numbers and given the Cubs’ lineup another left-handed bat to accompany first baseman Anthony Rizzo and right fielder Nate Schierholtz. Since coming off the 60-day disabled list Sept. 1, manager Dale Sveum has afforded Sweeney plenty of playing time starting him in each of the Cubs’ last six games including Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
“He’s got an ability in center field to make things look easy,” Sveum said of Sweeney. “You don’t want to put anybody in the Jim Edmonds category or anything like that, but he makes it kind of look easy like Jim Edmonds did with a great deal of speed.”
With his steady defense and the potential to hit for power, Sweeney would complement a potential 2014 starting outfield featuring Junior Lake and Schierholtz. But a roster spot won’t just be handed to him. Outfielder Brian Bogusevic, under team control through 2017, is also fighting to stick with the Cubs. The left-handed 29-year-old hit a solo homer Saturday against Milwaukee.
“I've expressed to them that I definitely want to be back here and I feel like this is a good fit for me,” Sweeney said. “Hopefully with them giving me this opportunity I can show them I can come back here and play every day.”
Sveum lauded Sweeney’s calmness on the field and called him a savvy ballplayer. Those attributes can’t be overlooked on a young team. Despite going 0-for-4 Saturday, Sweeney is hitting .263 since coming off the DL and .290 on the season with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 50 games. Staying healthy is one of the biggest questions surrounding the former second round draft pick. Unfortunately for Sweeney, his history doesn’t create much optimism. Only once in his eight-year career Sweeney has recorded more than 500 plate appearances (Oakland Athletics, 2009).
“He’s a guy you give 500-700 plate appearances -- which he’s never got before -- you can project that out to be a pretty good year the way he competes in the batter’s box,” Sveum said.
Sweeney isn’t sure where he might end up after the season and there’s no guarantee the Cubs will be want to bring him back despite his interest in returning. Ultimately Sweeney wants to prove wrong those who believe he can’t be a regular at this point in his career.
“I was a starter for the first three or four years of my career and then got put in that backup role and now being able to play every day, I feel like I can still do it,” Sweeney said. “Nobody wants to be a backup player and everyone wants to play every day, but unfortunately that can’t always happen. Whatever role you get put in you’ve just got to do the best you can.”