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Sweeney emerges as new Iowa prospect

By Mark Dukes
May 26, 2003

Ryan Sweeney hasn’t just magically emerged out of the Midwestern countryside and planted himself on the radar screen of every major league team. It’s not quite that easy, especially for a product of Iowa high school baseball.

Despite the apparent drawbacks of playing Iowa’s summer prep schedule, Sweeney has managed to propel himself onto the short list of possible first-round picks in June’s draft.

A 6-foot-5, 205-pound lefthander, Sweeney still is being eyed by teams as a strong-armed pitcher. But most clubs like him now as a sweet-swinging outfielder–some compare his swing to those of John Olerud or J.T. Snow–that could go as early as late in the first round.

"He’s progressed further as a player than a pitcher, although he can really pitch," said Jerry Ford, president of Perfect Game USA in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "He’s just a gifted athlete.

"He’s the best position player ever to come out of Iowa. He’s got a major league body, and he looks the part. On a rotten day, he’s still impressive."

Xavier’s X Factor

Whereas players in most states are wrapping up their high school seasons by graduation day, Iowa players are just beginning. The season starts around Memorial Day and concludes with the state championships in July. The only spring baseball available is American Legion or other amateur leagues.

If Sweeney signs soon after the draft, he could play as few as five games in his senior season at Cedar Rapids’ Xavier High. Last year, he batted .453-9-33 while slugging .953 in 30 games. On the hill, he was 8-0, 0.40, striking out 71 and walking just eight batters in 53 innings.

Sweeney always has yearned for competition. He has played in national tournaments of some sort every year since he was 9 years old, often playing up in age brackets. As an eighth-grader, he was promoted to the varsity team. And he has been a constant presence in wood-bat leagues, the Area Code Games and other major showcases.

"He’s like a Westminster dog, he’s been showcased so much," one scout said.

That was the plan according to his father, who wanted to make sure that Ryan wasn’t handicapped by playing in Iowa. Sweeney’s father, Gary, also prepared him by not allowing him to throw a breaking ball until he was 16. At the plate, Sweeney has grown comfortable using wood bats.

"I’ve been working a lot on my batting," Ryan Sweeney said. "I use wood bats every day except in high school games. I’ve practiced with wood bats the last three or four years. I actually hit better with wood bats and I like them better than aluminum."

Show Dog

Last October, he was named the most valuable player after he led his team to the title at the Baseball America/Perfect Game World Wood Bat Championship in Jupiter, Fla. At a Dallas showcase in early May, Sweeney wowed scouting directors on hand for their annual pre-draft meetings with his hitting and throwing skills but also showed improvement in his running ability, as he was timed at 6.6 in the 60-yard dash.

However, at the mid-May Perfect Game predraft camp in Cedar Rapids, he was less impressive, as he didn’t hit as well in batting practice.

The last couple of highly regarded Iowa high school players to struggle at the predraft camp proved to be solid picks. Two years ago, Brad Nelson dropped to the fourth round of the draft after a middling predraft camp, but he has rebounded to become one of the Brewers better prospects.

Last year, Jeff Clement dropped to the 12th round, but as a Southern California freshman, Clement was leading all college freshmen in home runs with 21.

Ford believes Sweeney’s past performance will ensure he goes high in the draft.

"He has a plus arm, a plus bat, projects to be plus on power and he’s plus as an outfielder," Ford said. "The only thing average of the five tools is his running ability, but that 6.6 in Texas makes him a plus runner, too."

Sweeney, a San Diego State signee, has gained 15 pounds since winter thanks to workouts with a personal trainer. He has been running up to six miles a day. He says he’s in the best shape of his life.

All of which has led to a lot of attention from scouts.

"We received an unbelievable number of calls," Gary Sweeney said. "It’s kind of phenomenal. It started with the colleges and then as soon as he signed, the pro scouts starting coming into the home, and then the financial advisors. We’ve tried to shield as much of that from Ryan as we can. We tell him it’s his job to go out and play baseball and have fun."

Sweeney’s fun probably is just beginning.

Mark Dukes is a freelance writer based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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