Matt Sweeney didn’t get the memo.
The memo that explains how hard it is for a high school hitter to make the adjustment to wood bats. How hard it is for a kid from the East Coast to slog through three months of the desert heat playing baseball every day. How hard hitting professional pitchers is.
After the Angels selected the left-handed slugger out of Rockville, Maryland, all the 18-year-old did was pace the rookie league team in average, hits, triples, home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and runs scored.
That makes his selection as the AZL Angels hitter of the year both an easy one and something less than a surprise.
What may have been a surprise to everyone – including Sweeney – is that he spent the year at third base.
“I played third for about two weeks in my high school season and that’s when they saw me,” said Sweeney. “But (area scout Dan Radcliffe) knew I was a catcher and first baseman.”
Nonetheless, when scouting director Eddie Bane was looking for a power bat for the hot corner, Radcliffe recommended Sweeney. While he has a long way to go to be smooth defensively at third, the Magruder High School product has worked hard ever since signing and is beginning to show solid instincts as the ball comes off the bat.
While the Angels are traditionally cautious in promoting players through the system, Sweeney could end up in the Midwest League before his 19th birthday next April. And if he can continue to show the pitch recognition he displayed in Arizona, he will keep hitting in his first full year of professional baseball as well.
Over the first four weeks of the season, the contest for hitter of the year was shaping up to be a great one. First-round pick Hank Conger, the slugging catcher from Huntington Beach, jumped out of the gate in a big way with a .319 average and .522 slugging percentage.
However, a broken hook of hamate bone ended his season on July 15, leaving Sweeney as the big bat in the middle of the Angels’ lineup. The switch-hitter was back on the field by the time the instructional league opened however, and does not seem to be showing any lasting effects from the injury.
Among other impressive debuts at the plate, Chris Lewis, (32nd round), Willie Ortiz (33rd), and Alex Fonseca (36th), all showed the polish of having played in four-year college programs, with Fonseca pacing the club with a .436 on-base percentage.
Wiry outfielder Norberto Ortiz, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2003, also made a strong showing in his U.S. debut, tying Sweeney for the team lead with five homers and flashing enough speed for 10 stolen bases. Following on a year in which he led the DSL in homers, the 21-year old showed that although he is still raw at the plate, he has a huge upside.