FORT MYERS, Fla. – For all the scouting and research that baseball teams do, fate can play a role in opportunities, too. If the line at airport security had been a little longer in Nashville in December, or if Terry Ryan had stopped for a cup of coffee, who knows? Maybe Ryan Sweeney isn’t in a Twins uniform today, trying to revive his baseball career.
But he is, at least partly because Ryan bumped into the outfielder’s agent, Larry Reynolds, as the Twins general manager waited for a flight home from the winter meetings. “It’s kind of weird how it happened, but they just started talking,” the 31-year-old Sweeney said. “Pretty soon, I got an offer [from the Twins], and it was a pretty easy decision. I knew the Twins had a young outfield, and I thought it could be a perfect situation.”
If so, it would be a long-shot payoff to a dicey gamble the nine-year major league veteran took last year. Sweeney was the final player cut by the Cubs last April, despite being owed $2 million (a $1.5 million guaranteed salary for 2015 and a $500,000 buyout for a 2016 option). With no financial incentive to search for a minor league contract, and a career’s worth of nagging injuries to let heal, Sweeney made a decision that few players risk: He took a midcareer intermission.
“I had a couple of teams interested in signing me — even a month into the season, I still got an offer — but I just thought, ‘I need to rest my body,’ ” said Sweeney, whose career with the White Sox, Athletics, Red Sox and Cubs has been interrupted by serious knee, hamstring, rib and foot injuries. “I could have done the whole Triple-A thing, but I just decided it would be better to heal up and come back this year.”
He lifted weights. He played golf. He spent time at his suburban Chicago home with his wife, Natasha, and 2-year-old son, Myer. He watched Cubs games on TV, growing a little jealous over missing their wild-card season, and hit in batting cages. He even turned down a few offers from neighbors to become the ex-Cub on their neighborhood softball teams.
“After a while, it was tough, but I trusted that I could get back in the game,” Sweeney said. “I don’t know if your pride gets hurt, but I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I was ready to get back.”
The Twins, who had interest in Sweeney before he was drafted by the White Sox in 2003, were willing to listen, although manager Paul Molitor admits the long layoff made him wonder. “I tried to become a little educated on why [it] happened and the decision [he] made,” Molitor said. “But there’s ability there. … I don’t know if ‘lightning in a bottle’ is the proper term, but you’re always looking for that guy you know can play at this level but for whatever reason has been out of the game. [We want] to see if there is something there that can help.”
Sweeney built a reputation, especially during his tenure with Oakland from 2008 to ’11, as a solid defensive outfielder who never experienced the breakout season at the plate that scouts had long expected. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native has the build and size of a power hitter, but he has never hit more than 13 home runs in a season, and never more than six in the big leagues.
Still, he has racked up an on-base percentage higher than .375 five times, and he has gap power that can produce a lot of doubles — 31 in 2009 alone. He’s a former pupil of Rod Carew, who spent a couple of weeks two winters ago working on his swing. And it wasn’t lost on Sweeney that Shane Robinson got 197 plate appearances as a spare outfielder with the Twins last season, before moving on to Cleveland.
The Twins “have a young group of outfielders, including [Miguel Sano] who hasn’t played out there. I feel like, being an older, veteran guy, it would be a good opportunity to put my experience to work,” Sweeney said. “I’ve started, I’ve had a backup role, I can play all three positions. I’ve been in both the National and American leagues. It seems like I can help here.”
Maybe so, but the Twins are stocked with other candidates. Molitor said Sweeney has a chance to stick with the major league team, but it will depend on who else makes the roster. “We don’t need DHs — we need a guy who can do things off the bench with his bat, as well as us feeling comfortable if he has to play an outfield position,” Molitor said. “Sometimes guys come back recharged, and they appreciate it a little more.”