What to do with Ben Sheets?

Posted by Steve

I realize the 2008 season hasn’t even begun, but I want to address what will be the Brewers’ biggest decision for the 2009 season.  Ben Sheets is entering a contract year, and the Brewers will be faced with a huge decision.

Because Sheets has given the Brewers frustrating returns, he was involved in trade rumors this off-season.  Nothing ever materialized, and now the Brewers have an interesting and difficult situation on their hands. 

Even the biggest Sheets fans around (and I’m definitely one of them) have to admit that he has not lived up to his four-year $38.5 million contract signed in 2005.  Of course the tricky thing is it is solely due to the time he missed rather than anything approaching poor performance.  Ben Sheets continues to put up great numbers whenever he pitches.

Entering 2008, the Brewers have rather quickly found themselves in another contract year with Sheets.  It is widely believed that 2008 will be Sheets’s last year in a Brewer uniform, but I am on the side that believes the Brewers can (and very likely should) attempt to re-sign him.

I’ll go through some reasons why the Brewers cannot/should not re-sign Ben Sheets, and why I disagree with them.

He is too soft and injury-prone to risk giving another big contract

Ben took a lot of flak last year for not “pitching through pain” on what was perceived to be mild injuries.  People questioned his toughness, which is absolutely ridiculous.  How quickly so many forget this is the same player who pitched the entire 2004 season with a herniated disc (and had Cy Young numbers in the process).

As for the dreaded “injury-prone” tag, well by definition it’s undeniable at this point: Ben Sheets is prone to getting injured.  My main rebuttal to this, though, is that he has only had one injury that could be considered worse than short-term, which was the torn lat muscle.   Vestibular neuritis (that weird vertigo thing) was a total freak phenomenon that he just couldn’t help.  Then there was the blister, the hamstring, the finger tendon, and maybe something else I’m forgetting.  There’s been a lot, I know.

But.  Basically, nothing was serious enough to still be affecting him today.  He’s never had a serious arm injury, and he’s never missed an entire season.  That’s more than you can say for most MLB pitchers.  So there’s no reason not to believe he could pitch an entire season.

Paying Sheets would prevent the Brewers from paying their young players

This is probably the most common argument as to why Sheets is a goner, and I disagree strongly with this stipulation.  I understand arbitration raises for a few players will be costly; Prince Fielder alone will probably get $10 or 11 mil. 

But there are a lot of things that can overcome that.  The Brewers’ payroll has really shot up since Mark Attanasio bought the team, and they’ll be over $80 mil this season.  It is reasonable to expect the payroll to be bumped up a bit again after another good attendance year in 2008.  Mike Cameron at $6 mil and Eric Gagne at $10 mil will come off the books (unless Cameron’s hefty option is picked up, which is probably doubtful).  That money alone will probably cover most of the arbitration raises.

Then we have Jeff Suppan.  He signed a four-year, $42 million deal last winter.  Perhaps conveniently, though, he was given a no-trade-clause for only the first two years of his contract.  Here’s how his contract is structured:

2007: $6 mil

2008: $8 mil

2009: $12.5 mil

2010: $12.5 mil

2011: $12.75 mil club option, $2 mil buyout

First thought:  That contract gets pretty ugly after this year.  Second thought: That contract was designed so they could trade Suppan after 2008.  Now I don’t expect a team to take the entire contract, but if the Brewers had a reason to move him, they could find a team to take on some of that.

Why couldn’t that reason be a Ben Sheets extension?

By trading Suppan (and saving, say $6.5 mil off next year’s payroll in the process), shedding Gagne and Cameron’s contracts and Attanasio boosting the payroll again, the Brewers would have enough in their payroll budget for an extension for Sheets.

They have enough pitchers to replace him

Always take quality over quantity.  The Brewers don’t have anybody on their roster who could replace Ben Sheets.  Maybe Yovani Gallardo will become that player, but he’s still way too young to count on that from him anytime soon.  The bottom line is Ben Sheets is still the best pitcher on the Brewers, and it isn’t really that close.

But his numbers did drop off last year

This is actually my biggest concern about re-signing Sheets.  His numbers dropped off a little bit in 2007.

2004: 2.7 ERA, .98 WHIP, 8.25 K/BB, 1.1 K/9

2005: 3.33 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 5.64 K/BB, 0.9 K/9

2006: 3.82 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 10.5 K/BB, 1.1 K/9

2007: 3.82 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.86 K/BB, .75 K/9

First of all, before I say anything, look at that line for 2004.  Ben Sheets had 12 wins in 2004.  That’s all you need to know about the importance of the “win” stat.

But secondly, Sheets did have a bit of a down year in ‘07, at least by his standards.  The things that he’s known for, which are high strikeout totals and ridiculous strikeout/walk ratios, weren’t really there in 2007.  It’s mainly because his strikeouts took a significant dip.  They made his k/9 solid rather than good, and his k/bb good rather than superhuman.  It’s something that really makes approaching an extension tricky, because the Brewers might not want to give top-of-the-line starter money to a guy who’s now just good rather than elite.

They are stuck in a catch-22:  If Sheets gets hurt again the Brewers won’t want to keep him; if he stays healthy (and pitches well) they won’t be able to keep him.

This might be true, but a very realistic scenario exists where it’s not.  If Sheets stays healthy and pitches well, the club should approach him about an extension during the season.  Rather than pulling a Barry Zito (everyone knew Oakland wasn’t going to re-sign him), try for a Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano or Roy Oswalt (all signed big extensions during the season).

If the Brewers are serious about re-signing Sheets, and I would definitely argue that they should be (again, IF he’s healthy), then they need to approach him during the season.  If they don’t, and he reaches free agency, the bidding will quickly escalate past what the Brewers should spend.

Sheets signed a below-market value with the Brewers once, so it’s feasible that he might do it again.  The Brewers just need to act as soon as they see he’s healthy and effective.  If he’s churning along around the All-Star Break, I’d make a strong push for it at that time.

In my opinion, Sheets is the most valuable impending free agent the Brewers have had since Paul Molitor left in 1993.  Sure, they had Greg Vaughn, Richie Sexson and Carlos Lee, but Sexson was the only one who approached Sheets’ level (Vaughn was past his prime and Lee was not a franchise player, thus not worth the huge contract).  Everyone knew Sexson wasn’t going to sign here though, and the situation with Sheets is a lot different.  I think the fact that the Brewers did not trade Sheets this past off-season really shows that they are going to try to keep him.

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