Ben Sheets (Hopefully) Coming Back

ST. PETERSBURG - Pitcher Ben Sheets of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

An old friend showed up in the rumor mill the other day, so let's take a look back (and maybe forward) at Ben Sheets.

Matt Cain has gotten a lot of attention recently for his perfect game, and some of that attention has been on his improbable .500 career. If Cain was so good (which he was), why wasn't he picking up the wins? Why was he always saddled with the losses? And before he climbed over .500 for his career, I would grumble and search for the typical pitchers who hovered around. .500 for their career. Brett Tomko. Sterling Hitchcock. Scott Karl. Guys who would usually provide some value for their team. Nary an All-Star in the bunch.

There was another name that would stick out, though: Ben Sheets. When you think of a a sub-.500 pitcher, you don't think of Ben Sheets, a former first-round pick with an electric fastball, a sharp curve, and implausible command. He was a pitcher to fear -- a name that made you roll your eyes when you checked out the probable pitchers when the Brewers rolled into town. And there he is, on a list of pitchers who kind of muddled around, just getting by and helping their teams by not being the worst possible option. Sheets is the only sub-.500 pitcher in the history of baseball with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over three.

This comes up now because according to MLB Trade Rumors, Sheets is thinking about a comeback:

Righty Ben Sheets threw for scouts today in Monroe, Louisiana, MLBTR has learned. Scouts from the Phillies, Braves, Yankees, and Angels were in attendance.

The salient facts about Ben Sheets:

  • He's still just 33 years old
  • He used to be one of the best pitchers in baseball
  • When healthy
  • He was rarely healthy
  • Win/loss records suck

I'm not going to say that those four teams listed by MLBTR are the smartest teams in baseball, but those teams are usually successful for a reason. Money, if you want to be cynical. And I had to put the "usually" in there because holy crap Phillies. But there's at least a little je ne sais scout going on with those teams, and it's not a coincidence that their ears perked up when they heard that Sheets was inviting teams to watch him pitch.

In 2008, Sheets had 158 strikeouts and 47 walks in 198 innings. His ERA was 3.09, his ERA+ was 137, and he was an All-Star. After the season, he had elbow surgery, and the A's spent a lot of money when they gambled on him as a free agent. But it didn't work out. At all. This quote says a lot:

The day it was announced that Stephen Strasburg will probably need Tommy John surgery, Ben Sheets visited the A's clubhouse and said, "I wish that's all I had."

He had tendons repaired that didn't even exist in medical books before they opened him up. His tendons had broken tendons. And as you'd expect from a pitcher who got 119 innings in between elbow surgeries, he retired.

But you look at the age. You look at the skills set -- mid-90s fastball and plus-command. And if there were ever a pitcher to give the benefit of the doubt, it's Sheets. He was injury-prone, but he wasn't wholly unreliable like a Rich Harden or Mark Prior. And there must have been something that felt right enough to call up his agent and say, I'm ready for my audition.

The first analogue that comes to mind is Andy Pettitte, who retired after injury troubles, but is back and pitching extremely well. But that's not entirely right. Pettitte never had the injury history that Sheets did.

The second analogue that comes to mind is Ryan Vogelsong, who had serious injury problems, but shocked the world by showing up in his mid-30s and becoming a notable pitcher. But that's not right either. If we're talking quality, then when Vogelsong was in his 20s, he was the mutton smoothie to Sheets's 30-year-old scotch. Vogelsong came completely out of nowhere.

The best comparison is probably Bartolo Colon, especially when it comes to the command. Except Colon was 38 when he came back, and his strikeout powers had deserted him even before that -- he was an even more unlikely comeback candidate.

All of those comparisons are unfair, really, because those are all successful comebacks. We're not going to bring up Ramon Ortiz, Chad Cordero, or Scott Elarton because they don't stick with us. It's still unlikely that Sheets ever sees the majors again, regardless of how talented he used to be.

But while you'll hear a lot about Mark Prior's travails in Pawtucket -- and rightfully so -- I'm pulling just as hard for Sheets. Think back to his 2004 season. He threw 237 innings, striking out 264 and walking just 32, good for the seventh-best strikeout-to-walk ratio ever. That Ben Sheets is gone. But if 65 percent of him is left, he could be a great story for someone in September.

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