Darnell Sweeney surprised a lot of people in 2014, but one person he did not surprise is Darnell Sweeney. Sweeney led the Southern League with 88 runs scored, improved upon his 2013 on-base percentage (.329 in the Cal League) by nearly 60 points (.387) and went from being unranked to being named the Dodgers' No. 13 prospect by MLB.com.
"Honestly, this is what I've always expected and what I've known I'm capable of doing," Sweeney said. "It came to pass this year, and it was a blessing to play every day and show the Dodger organization that they were right for giving me the opportunity."
In addition to getting regular playing time, Sweeney settled into a rhythm as a second baseman. A shortstop at the University of Central Florida, he faced questions about whether he'd stick at the position since he was picked in the 13th round of the 2012 Draft. He played 81 of 132 games at second this year -- mostly splitting the Chattanooga middle infield with Corey Seager -- and played 28 games at shortstop and 23 at center field.
Sweeney's numbers are evidence of a consistent season, but they don't show is a series of remarkable days. On March 28, the Miramar, Florida, native sunk the Angels with a walk-off base knock in the 10th inning of an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium. On June 17, he played in his first professional All-Star Game, going 1-for-3. On June 30, he homered in three consecutive at-bats.
MiLB.com: If you had to pick a favorite moment from your eventful season, what would you choose?
Sweeney: Definitely that walk-off in the Freeway Series. That walk-off really set off my good season and got it started in a good way.
I told my wife and my parents, 'Honestly, I don't remember what happened, but I know I was there, and I know I did it.' It was a big thing to hit the walk-off and hear the L.A. fans go crazy, and get the Gatorade shower. That's something that everybody always dreams about, and it showed that dreams can happen, and it actually did happen to me.
MiLB.com: Do you feel like you had a breakout year?
Sweeney: It was a breakout year, but there's still a lot more to come.
MiLB.com: While facing Double-A pitching for the first time, you struck out fewer times than last year (117 compared to 151) and also got on base more often than you had in any other season as a pro. What was it that allowed you to do that?
Sweeney: I think it was just my approach. In Spring Training, I got to go to the big league side a lot and spend some time with the older, more experienced guys. Honestly, I took a little bit from everybody and I molded parts of their approach with my own identity and made my own approach. That really helped me. I was able to stick with that approach and get over bad at-bats and grow upon at-bats that I knew were successful. That was part of changing that approach, and also part of being more mature as a player.
MiLB.com: Before former VP of scouting Logan White left the Dodgers for the Padres, he told us he thinks that playing consistently at second base rather than being concerned with being moved around had a positive impact on your offensive game. Does that ring true from your perspective?
Sweeney: That is true. What you have to do defensively has an impact on what you do offensively, even though they are two separate parts of the game. When you move around a lot on defense, you can start veering off what you're trying to do offensively because you worry about D so much.
But, honestly, you can grow out of that as a player, and I'm working on that. But knowing I was playing at second over and over did help, because I didn't have to worry about what I was going to have to do in center field, or how to come at the ball from at a different angle at short
MiLB.com: Is that the main goal, to get to the point where whatever happens defensively doesn't affect you at the plate?
Sweeney: That's the thing -- you have to make sure you don't take at-bats into the field or take fielding into at-bats. You have to separate the game, and I've been able to do that more consistently this year.
MiLB.com: And now you're in the AFL, as of this conversation hitting over .300 with an OBP around .400, and you've played mostly at second but short and center, too. Is there anything in particular you're focusing on there?
Sweeney: I want to end the season on a good note. Going into the offseason, that's one of the biggest things all the guys here really want to be doing -- continue the success from the season and go into the offseason with confidence. That confidence will be there when you start working out and picking up the bat again and taking groundballs and flies again. The confidence level is what's making guys better and pushing guys to their next level.
MiLB.com: Over the last two seasons, you've stolen 63 bases but been caught 36 times. What can you do to cut down on getting caught?
Sweeney: That's about picking better times to run. I'm still learning that part of the game, really. When I get with the right people, I know that will really help me learn to pick better counts, pick the times and people to do it off of. Growing up, there really wasn't ever any strategy to it for me. It was just, once I was on base, I knew I was going to be going on the first couple of pitches.
Once I got a little older and I'm playing with better people, against better pitchers and catchers who know a little bit about how [to control the running game], I knew I still had some things to learn. But next year's going to different. I already know I can do much better.
Darnell Sweeney had a .958 fielding percentage in 657 innings at second base this season. (Ed Gardner/MiLB.com)
MiLB.com: Let's talk a little about how you got to where you are. Were you always a switch hitter, since you were a little kid?
Sweeney: When I was younger, I was a right-handed hitter and my dad used to tell me, 'Hey, get to the left side and stay focused.' Once you're on your weaker side, you're thinking, mentally, you're a lot more focused, and that stayed with me when I went back to the right side. I think my sophomore or junior year in high school was the first year I did it [regularly], and it was a struggle. Actually, I stopped doing it a little bit in the first year and went back to it at the end of the season. It's something that's really helped my offense as I've played [in the pros]. I'm glad I started it and glad I stuck with it.
MiLB.com: And how tempted were you to sign with your hometown Marlins when they drafted you out of high school [in the 41st round of 2009]?
Sweeney: It was definitely tempting. But my parents made sure -- they really told me that education is the key, and right then and there I don't think as a player I was mentally and physically ready to be a professional. Going to UCF helped me grow a lot as a player. I got stronger, bigger and faster, and I made great friends, and getting some more education really helped me. The education helped me to be more mature as a player and got me ready to be a pro.
MiLB.com : What did you get out of playing in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2011?
Sweeney: That was a great experience as well. We were able to win the championship, and being on the championship team [the Harwich Mariners] was great. That was really my first taste of what it's like to be in pro ball, because you're in a small town and there's great competition, and you're away from home. You have to fend and live for yourself, and that helped me a lot when I actually did get into pro ball. There was nothing about it that was a shock.
MiLB.com: Logan White also told us the Dodgers considered themselves lucky you were still available in the 13th round of the next year's Draft. Did not getting picked earlier make you feel like you had something to prove?
Sweeney: That for sure was my mindset. I just wanted the opportunity at the time when I got picked up. The first thing I said was, 'Now I have the opportunity to just go show them they got a steal in the Draft.' That's one of the things that helped me to get to where I am right now. I didn't take anything for granted, and I worked hard with the opportunity. When I make it, I know I'm going to be able to say I earned what I got.
MiLB.com: Some people have compared you to Dee Gordon. Do you feel that's an accurate comparison?
Sweeney: He's a big leaguer. He was an All-Star this year. Any type of comparison to a big leaguer is an honor, a blessing. Me and Dee are actually good friends, and when it comes to me being compared to him, we're always joking. I think it's funny. But of course it's good to be compared to a big leaguer.
MiLB.com: Gordon was also a guy about whom a lot of people had a lot of doubts until he did what he did this season. Do you think even after the season you had in 2014, you're still going to be able to surprise a lot of people with what you do in 2015?
Sweeney: Definitely I do. I know there are still a lot of people who are not on board with me and my play. But I can't worry about them. I've got to do what I do and keep on proving myself and do what I've done the last two years. I've got to keep proving them wrong.
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com.