Sign of the times: Oft-injured Sheets still available
Sheets turned down Milwaukee's arbitration offer, hoping to get a long-term deal
His fragile nature -- five trips to the DL in four years -- gives GMs pause
The Rangers have emerged as perhaps the most likely destination for Sheets
Everywhere Doug Melvin goes this winter, he's getting the same question. Whether it's Milwaukee or Madison, Appleton or Green Bay, as the Brewers general manager makes the rounds of the banquet hall circuit to discuss what his club will do for an encore after ending a 26-year postseason drought, there is always one question that's the same, and answering it is tougher than the chicken served for dinner: What's happening with Ben Sheets?
The truth, as Melvin repeats over and over to legions of loyal fans who long to see Sheets back in Beertown, is that he doesn't know.
Sheets, who made about $12 million last season and went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA and three shutouts in 198 1/3 innings, turned down Milwaukee's offer to go to arbitration earlier this offseason in hopes of landing a lucrative and longer-term deal elsewhere. But so far the free-agent market has been slow, and since the arbitration offer, Melvin has not been in regular contact with Sheets or his agent, Casey Close.
Nevertheless, given the ceaseless demand for quality starting pitching, the reality that an impact starter like Sheets remains unsigned less than a month before spring training opens -- with nary an offer in sight -- may be the clearest sign yet that this winter has been even tougher than anticipated for ball clubs and players on both sides of the free-agent divide.
"I'm surprised he doesn't have something at this time," Melvin said. "He's a great kid and a great competitor."
There was a time, not very long ago, when Sheets might well have been considered the best starting pitcher in the National League. That time was last July, when Sheets was named the starting pitcher for the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. To be fair, such appointments often have as much to do with scheduling as with statistics, but Sheets had a compelling case: a 10-3 record, a 2.85 ERA and a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Just six months later Sheets finds himself a man not only without a league, but without a team as well. As baseball's winter of belt-tightening continues, a stunning number of high-profile stars -- from future Hall of Famers such as Manny Ramirez to sluggers like Adam Dunn to Gold Glovers such as Orlando Hudson -- remain unsigned. And while many of the biggest names (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr.) have already seen their best days, several players fully capable of influencing a pennant race remain available, perhaps none more noteworthy than Sheets.
On the surface, Sheets is exactly the kind of player that usually sends general managers scrambling to make room on the payroll: A hard-throwing 30-year-old with a track record of success (double-digit wins in all but one of his eight seasons), big-game pitching experience (he won the gold medal game for the U.S. at the 2000 Summer Olympics and made several crucial starts in the cauldron of a September pennant race during each of the past two seasons) and star power (four All-Star Game appearances).
But repeated arm troubles -- including a torn muscle in his pitching elbow last September that kept him from pitching in the postseason -- have surely given teams pause.
"I don't know why, I think it's just bad timing," Melvin said. "You just don't know if A.J. Burnett got the deal he got [five years, $82.5 million from the Yankees] because he was hot at the right time, and Ben's not getting the deal he deserves because he was not healthy."