Mike Sweeney: Heartwarming Tale or Limiting Decision?

Mar 30, 2010, 7:49 PM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:51 pm

By Mike Salk

The impossible has happened: Mike Sweeney has made the Mariners’ Opening Day roster . And depending on your point of view, this is either an incredible story of perseverance or a decision that seems to limit the team’s choices down the road. The more I think about it, the more I think both options apply. So consider these contradictory and yet complimentary ways of breaking down this decision.

Story #1: Mike Sweeney was not supposed to make the Mariners. He wasn’t signed until February 12, 2010 (just a few days before spring training) and even then, it was a minor league contract. That meant that at 36 years old, Sweeney was going to have to beat out players with major league contracts (like Ryan Garko) or 40-man roster spots (like Mike Carp) to make the club.

But in typical Sweeney-form, he showed up to camp in great shape and in an even better mood. Despite his minor league contract, he was treated like a leader in the clubhouse and always worked out with the top group. And he lived up to his end of the deal. When we spent our week in Peoria, our show would continue for an additional two hours after the players had left the facility. But each day, we saw Sweeney running laps, just trying to keep in shape and keep up with the whippersnappers nearly half his age.

And when I came time to prove it in the games, Sweeney was even better. He has hit .517 this spring with a slugging percentage of .931. Those numbers were off the charts! And when combined with Garko’s struggles, landed Sweeney a spot on the 25-man roster. Not bad for anyone, let a lone a guy who the team approached about a coaching position just a few months ago! It is truly an inspiring story of perseverance, effort, determination and stick-to-it-iveness.

Story #2: Despite the spring heroics, the realist could look at Mike Sweeney making the Mariners roster and raise more questions than applause. Yes, he was a hitting machine in the desert, but as a professional, 36-year old, ex-all star trying desperately to hang on, he is precisely the type of player who can fool you with an unbelievable spring. Like many veterans, he knows how to pick on pitchers working on things in the spring, and unlike other veterans, he needs to hit in order to stick. With that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that he did most of his damage early in spring before the pitchers began tuning up for their regular season starts.

The second problem with Mike Sweeney appearing along with Ken Griffey Junior on the Mariners is that it gives them two players who are virtually limited to DH/pinch hitting duties. Thus, a team built on pitching and defense has two aging hitters who are no longer advantages (and indeed are now disadvantages) in the field. And at this stage in their careers, neither appears productive enough to warrant their inability to play the field.

Still, I could stomach that if it weren’t for the fact that their inability to play the field limits the opportunities for Milton Bradley to act as the DH.

Bradley is the best run producer in the Mariners’ roster. By all accounts, if he isn’t in the lineup, they are going to have a lot of trouble driving in runs. Unfortunately, Bradley is also fragile and is more likely to get hurt the more he plays in the field. Thus every game that either Sweeney or Griffey starts at DH is a game that Bradley will likely play in the field. And each game that Bradley starts at DH is likely a game that both Griffey and Sweeney are relegated to the bench. Because neither is a likely candidate to play the field, it limits Don Wakamatsu’s ability to even use them as a pinch hitter.

Why?

Well, play out this scenario.

Bradley starts at DH, which means Eric Byrnes is in left field and Sweeney and Junior are on the bench. If Wak hits for Byrnes, he would be forced to bring Bradley into the game to play LF, therefore losing his DH and forcing the pitcher to hit. He could still hit for Kotchman, but it would mean that either Matt Tuiasosopo or Sweeney would have to play first late in the game (something you’d want to avoid).

Look, all of these things are possible. None of them will destroy the season. But they just aren’t ideal. And I wonder if the benefits of having Sweeney on the team are actually worth some of the difficulties it creates down the road.

Clearly Jack Zduriencik and Wakamatsu believe they are worth it, and both deserve the benefit of the doubt right now. Both the GM and the skipper have immense respect for Sweeney and seem to have an emotional attachment to him. That’s fair and it’s important to have players you like and trust on your ballclub. This isn’t how I would have built my team, but it certainly has a chance to work. It’ll be interesting to see how long it lasts.

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