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Ryan Sweeney and the Difficulty of 40-Man Roster Decisions

Ryan Sweeney survived the first round of cuts this off-season. Whether or not he will continue to do so is unclear, but decisions about players like Sweeney are often more complicated than they initially appear.

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Most of the focus these past few days has been on Boston’s pursuit of free agent Mike Napoli and the rumors of a possible trade with the Royals for uber-prospect Wil Myers. For some odd reason, however, I have found myself thinking about a player that almost no one is talking about, a player many people may have forgotten about entirely or at least tried to forget about: Ryan Sweeney.

Sweeney was the other player Boston acquired in the deal that sent Josh Reddick and prospects Miles Head and Raul Alcantara to Oakland for Andrew Bailey. It is something of an understatement to say that that trade has not worked out. Bailey was hurt for more than half of the season and Sweeney did not find Fenway any more accommodating to his bat than the Oakland Coliseum. Josh Reddick was a force in the first half of the season and although he cooled considerably he still produced 4.8 wins above replacement by Fangraph’s calculus. That's considerably more than Bailey and Sweeney combined. Miles Head also tore things up in the minors, making this a trade that could haunt Ben Cherington for a long time.

I have been thinking about Sweeney because I was surprised to find him still on the 40-man roster after the first round of cuts were made in preparation for the Rule 5 Draft. Boston chose to keep Sweeney rather than guarantee that they would retain Ivan DeJesus, Josh Fields or Jeremy Hazelbaker. At first glance, I find this strange. Sweeney is entering his third arbitration year and he has skills that are fairly redundant with Ryan Kalish, who is still pre-arbitration. 2012 was a down-year for the 27-year-old as he battled injuries (always something of an issue for him) and fell apart at the plate, with his lowest ever walk rate (5.5%) and his highest strikeout rate (19.6%) leading him to be 21% worse than league average at the plate (by weighted Runs Created Plus). Sweeney appears to be an easily replaceable asset, a fourth outfielder with slightly above average defense, good base running skills and a weak bat. Why then keep him and chance losing a player of value who costs just the league minimum?

On the fringes of the 25 man roster, value is much more difficult to judge than we often recognize and decisions about such marginal players can be extremely complicated. Utility infielders, fourth and fifth outfielders, and backups are easy to overlook and to undervalue as we think about what starting players will contribute, but they can very quickly become starters and even in their backup roles, they need to bring the team value. Ryan Sweeney is not guaranteed to be a part of this team next April--he could easily be designated for assignment the next time a roster spot is needed-- but he still has real value and upside.

When the Red Sox acquired Sweeney, I was distinctly more positive about him than many other writers and fans. Sweeney is an easy player to underrate because he has almost no power at the plate and plays primarily corner outfield positions where the expectation for power hitting is high. He does a lot of things well though, including playing defense at all three outfield positions and running the bases. Those skills managed to keep him a hair above replacement level in 2012, despite a career-worst performance at the plate. At just 28-years-old, there's still hope for this bat and his other skills make him a solid choice as the fourth or fifth outfielder, especially given the defensive limitations of Daniel Nava and the newly-signed Jonny Gomes. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where Sweeney becomes an average near-everyday player (his struggles against lefties are severe enough to keep him sitting at least part time). This is not as easy a skill set to find as it might seem. In the right context, a player like Sweeney can be a very important part of a contending team. Just look at Gregor Blanco in San Francisco last season.

Even recognizing the value of Sweeney’s role, it seems that Boston could just as easily have slated Kalish for that role and kept Josh Fields or Ivan Dejesus around. However, Kalish has yet to prove he can be what Ryan Sweeney is at the major league level. There is still a great deal of projection involved in any conversation concerning the 24-year-old former prospect, and below replacement-level is very much a possibility. Suffering through that when Sweeney was readily available would be tough to stomach. For a team to steal a player exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, they need to keep that player on their 25 man roster for a full season. With players like DeJesus, Fields and Hazelbaker, that might not be an easy thing to do. Cutting known major league value over the fear of losing these types of players doesn't make much sense.

Finally, there is Ryan Sweeney’s trade value to consider. Even if Sweeney will be the first name bumped from the roster when the Red Sox need room, he is still a useful piece in the trade market. Every team needs at least two players capable of handling center field and Sweeney is likely to cost close to what a free agent like Rick Ankiel or Reed Johnson would while providing more upside. There are more than a few cost-conscious teams that could use Sweeney and a few (like Kansas City and Minnesota) might even have players we want. Perhaps more importantly, such teams may want Ryan Kalish or Daniel Nava. Should one of those two be traded, Sweeney would instantly become a more important part of the depth chart then he currently appears to be.

Last season, Sweeney was a disappointment in many respects. Yet, he produced positive value. By Fangraph’s WAR-based pricing model, Sweeney was worth approximately $3.3 million last year, a number that, while subject to some of WAR’s year-to-year issues, is quite likely an accurate assessment of both his value and the cost Boston would need to pay to replace his production through free agency. The chance that this walk year, coming in the height of his prime, will be significantly better may actually make him a bargain in 2013. With all of focus on the hot stove and who will sign where this off-season, it is easy to overlook how difficult and impactful smaller procedural transactions can be. Keeping or releasing a player like Sweeney factors into the much larger issues of signing a Nick Swisher or a Mike Napoli and when games begin again in April, it will certainly matter. Teams are 25 men deep and value at the margins is still value.