The idea of life without Carlos Pena becomes a bit more realistic with each passing day. We all know his contract status and who is agent his. With that said, there is a fair chance Pena is on his last legs in the Bay area. The Dan Johnson signing may or may not mean much for the 2010 Rays. However, the transaction did re-hash some questions and debates about the future of the Rays at first base.
I'm not going to speculate any further on what Johnson's role might or might not be. Nor will I try to figure out how Willy Aybar, Carlos Pena and Johnson fit on the same 25-man roster, if that actually happens. I'll spare us all the endless rosterbation possibilities for a 2011 first basemen on the open market or via trade. Instead, I want to look at the possibility of a long-term solution; one that is already in the organization.
In case you haven't heard, the Rays traded one-time ace, Scott Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels for three minor league players in August 2009. Sean Rodriguez, a personal favorite of mine, is likely to see time with the Rays in 2010. Whether that's in April, or at later date, is to be determined. Recent addition to the 40-man roster, Alex Torres was just ranked as the #8 prospect in the organization by Kevin Goldstein. Still, the three-star prospect is probably a year away although you can't rule out a September call-up if he has a monster season.
The third player, Matt Sweeney has been the least talked about member of the trio...until now. Sweeney, 21, joined the Angels in 2006 and has shown a decent bat when in the lineup. However, staying on the field long enough to show that decent bat has been a problem. He has just one season in which he has accumulated at least 400 plate appearances. He missed the 2008 season entirely and played just 68 games in 2009 for the Angels and Rays' systems.
Once again, when on the field, the kid has been a pretty good prospect. As a rookie-ball player in 2006, he put up a well above average wOBA of .464 in 44 games of action. He was advanced to Class-A in 2007, and continued to put up above average numbers. As a 19 year-old he posted a .347 wOBA and a .198 ISO in a fairly neutral park (Cedar Rapids). It was also the only season in which he would walk up to the plate over 400 times (485 PA). An ankle injury cost him the entire 2008 season. As mentioned above, he was limited to just 68 games in 2009, but the bat remained steady. In a cumulative look at his numbers, Sweeney hit .289/.377/.475 between the two franchises.
Most scouts and prospect analysts have commented on his power potential as well as his patience at the plate. He has been a bit of a hacker at points of his career, but will take his fair share of walks. Keith Law has also praised his power potential in the past. Nonetheless, Sweeney is still a raw hitter. His plate discipline is ok, but could use work. The talked about power was seen in 2007, but a full season would paint us a better picture as to what his power is like present day. As a left-handed batter, he needs to improve his ability to hit left-handed pitching or he'll be hit with the platoon label.
Defense? That's to be determined. To date, Sweeney has been a third baseman in the minor leagues. However, many feel his skills (or lack of) and size are better suited for the other side of the diamond. Totalzone has not been kind to him in recent years, but it's tough to put all your stock in minor league defense metrics. However, it's not hard to put all your stock in Evan Longoria at the hot corner for the next seven seasons. This means any non-Adrian Beltre or Ryan Zimmerman-esque third base prospects will be playing elsewhere in Tampa Bay. With all signs pointing to first base, is Matt Sweeney the answer to the Rays future at the position?
Like any prospect the answer is maybe or maybe not. Yes, his bat had been good, but his body hasn't been healthy enough to write his name in any future Rays' lineups. Of course Desmond Jennings had a lot of the same injury questions going into last season and he seemed to squash the injury bug pretty well. The Rays also have 2009 draftee Jeff Malm, but his path is even less predictable than Sweeney's given his young age limited pro experience.
Without many internal options, I feel that Sweeney is a good of a candiate for "first basemen of the future" as we've had in a while. On the other hand, that isn't much of a complement since the best prospect the Rays have had at the position was Wes Bankston. As a personal project of mine, I am excited about tracking Sweeney in the 2010 season. Anyone counting on Sweeney for 2011 is probably headed for disappointment, but an ETA of mid 2011 or early 2012 seems likely. If that happens, then maybe maybe the reason we couldn't find Carlos Pena's successor sooner was because we weren't looking in Rancho Cucamonga.