Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross were supposed to share playing time. They weren't necessarily going to straight-up platoon in a lefty/righty scenario, but with Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury also around, there was no way for both outfielders to be on the field at the same time most nights.
That is, until we learned Crawford would be out for around a month as he recovered from his wrist surgery. Then Ellsbury's shoulder dislocated under the weight of Reid Brignac a week into the season. Crawford's return would have meant a temporary outfield that involved both Sweeney and Ross, but now it appears as if Crawford will return after Ellsbury, leaving two part-timers in full-time roles.
While the outfield might still prove to be an issue -- as Brendan O'Toole reminded us this morning, it's hard to draw too many conclusions from one-sixth of the season -- things have worked out to this point. Cody Ross's success isn't a mystery, given that his swing was considered a perfect fit for Fenway before he ever set foot within its walls. Plus, despite being susceptible to right-handers, he had essentially won the rights to right with his spring performance. Sweeney, though, has been a timely revelation.
The outfielder just finished the most productive month of his career, and it isn't close:
(sOPS+ is split-adjusted OPS+, i.e., how well left-handed hitters have done in a particular split.)
In 108 games and 299 plate appearances in 2011, Sweeney collected 15 extra-base hits and 70 hits overall. He's already smacked 12 and 25 respectively, in just 19 games and 71 plate appearances. He's leading the American League in doubles, As you can see above, though, while April 2012 is by far his most-successful stretch on his career's calendar, a big month from the big outfielder doesn't necessarily portend future success.
If stretches like his recent did signal a shift in production, Sweeney wouldn't be a career .286/.344/.386 hitter with a league-average-ish OPS+. You don't need someone to tell you that his .472 batting average on balls in play is going to come down and bring his line back to Earth with it, either. Exposure to more left-handed hitters alone would help do that, as Sweeney has seen just nine of them this season -- even with three outfielders on the disabled list, having Ross and Darnell McDonald around has helped the Sox shield Sweeney from his most troubling foe. Were he to avoid facing another southpaw all season, though, his BABIP is still going to fall.
In a way, though, it's fine. Sweeney wasn't meant to start in Boston. He was acquired as outfield depth, as a secondary piece in a trade that wasn't about him. He's on the roster to give the team a more-than-capable option to slide into the outfield rotation, should injuries overcome the squad as they have each of the last few years. In his first chance to prove himself in that role, Sweeney had his most-productive month ever. If some of the doubles power he's shown fades with the new month, or if those singles stop finding holes, he still has his plate discipline and defense to fall back on to get him through May.
After May, the Red Sox will be that much closer to getting Jacoby Ellsbury back. After that, Crawford is likely to return. Let's not forget that Ryan Kalish is still around, working back from injury.
There's always the outside change that hitting coach Dave Magadan reached Sweeney in the way that his previous hitting coaches have not, but based on just one month, that's difficult to prove; caution is the key when May is kicking off. Regardless, Sweeney has been instrumental in keeping the Red Sox around .500 despite a flurry of injuries to key personnel, and that's what he was acquired for. Reverting to the Ryan Sweeney everyone thought the Red Sox had acquired won't change that he's done his job, even if it's nowhere near as eye-popping in the future.