Friday, May 21, 2004

I'm beginning to wonder if Mike Sweeney's best days are behind him.

The Royals locked him into a 5 year, $55 million contract in the spring of 2002 (which many said was under market value) with novel clauses that required the Royals finish above .500 in 2003 or 2004 for the final two years to kick-in (and of course last year it did). This contract came on the heels of three fantastic seasons from 1999 to 2001, with an OPS over .900 each season and he played in at least 147 games. He was definitely one of the best 15 hitters in the game during that three-year stretch.

Ever since he signed the contract, though, he hasn't been quite the same player. His 2002 statistics were still great (his .979 OPS and .562 slugging were career highs), but he only played 126 games. His 2003 performance was quite a tumble from 2002: his OPS dropped 121 points to .858, his slugging fell below .500 for the first time since 1998, AND he only played in 108 games (some sort of neck strain, if I recall; maybe that was 2002).

Anyway, this year, we were supposed to finally get the REAL, healthy Mike Sweeney, surrounded and protected by good hitters, back to where he once belonged. Through nearly 25% of the season, it hasn't happened. In fact, his OPS has dropped way down to .788, and his OBP is a very ordinary .349. He has a lot of RBI, but those stats are situational and partly a matter of circumstance. His hitting simply has not been as good. Its still early in the season, but 25% is a pretty sizable sample, and he would have to approach Barry Bonds-like productivity for the rest of the season to bring his vital statistics up to match his glory years.

It probably shouldn't surprise anyone that his best years occurred at the alleged "peak" years for baseball players - 26 to 29. Years 30 and beyond haven't been nearly as kind so far - injury and lesser performance have characterized the past two seasons.

Now mind you, Sweeney's performance isn't terrible; its probably still a bit above average for all regular players, and average for first basemen/DH. The problem is that Royals simply can't afford to pay $11 million per year for the next 3 seasons (counting this season) for a player who just about average.

The Royals needed to sign Sweeney in 2002. He was the most recognizable face and the best player on a team that needed to give fans something to be cheer about. Sweeney graciously accepted less than market money before entering free agency to do so. I don't think there is any question about that. It may be premature to pronounce him average, because he truly hasn't played a full, injury-free season in two years.

But I'm not sure the Royals won't be wishing that they hadn't given us and themselves false hope in 2003 by finishing above .500, thereby locking in $22 million in salary that could conceivably be spent on pitching, more pitching, or perhaps Carlos Beltran.

But here's hoping Mike hits 2 HR tonight, because he's always going to be a great Royal in my book. He's a rarity in baseball - he's loyal and he seems to actually like KC. Of course, loyalty in professional baseball always has a price tag, and $55 million can buy a lot of loyalty. But at the time, he no doubt could have received more than that somewhere else. But he wanted to here, and wanted to win. I wish Carlos Beltran felt the same way.


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