This is probably something that could have been written after the 2008 season, but it’s official today. Ben Sheets will no longer play for the Brewers, signing a one-year deal with the Oakland A’s today for a reported $10 million plus incentives. At first glance, it seems to be a good move for all parties involved — good for the A’s, because Billy Beane found another market inefficiency (oft-injured All-Stars) and exploited it to make his team better; good for Sheets because he moves into a ballpark that will be much friendlier to his flyball tendencies.
Now that Big Ben is gone, I thought it’d be a good time to look back on his career with the Brewers. It was one with quite a few twists and turns, and towards the end, things got a little ugly. After seeing how poor the pitching was last year without him, though, it’s probably safe to say that those who grew to dislike Ben towards the end of his run didn’t really know what they had until they lost him.
Despite his current reputation as a fragile ace, Sheets started his career as the definition of a workhorse. He threw 151 innings and made the All-Star team as a rookie, and from there posted three straight years of 200+ innings at 34 starts. His traditional stats didn’t look so hot in his first three years — 33-39 with a 4.42 ERA — but he was a very young pitcher that was rushed through the system, acting as the ace on some horrible teams.
He broke out in 2004 with quite literally one of the most dominating seasons in team history. He posted a career-low ERA of 2.70 while setting team records for strikeouts (264), strikeouts per 9 innings (10.03), walks per 9 innings (1.22), WHIP (.983), strikeout to walk ratio (8.25), and strikeouts in a single game (18, against Atlanta). He was so dominating that he earned an 8th-place finish in the Cy Young award voting despite pitching for a team that lost 94 games (and, as a result, causing him to finish with a sub-.500 record). Things were looking great — for the first time since Teddy Higuera, the Brewers had a young pitcher that seemed destined for greatness.
They didn’t know just how similar to Higuera he would be, unfortunately. After giving him a much-deserved four-year, $38.5 million extension (the richest contract in team history), things took a turn for the worst.
In 2005, Sheets struggled with inner ear infections that threw off his balance to start the year, and his year ended early with a torn lat. In 2006, bouts with shoulder tendinitis (possibly related to the previous year’s torn muscle) repeatedly left him on the DL. In 2007, he tore a tendon in a finger on his pitching hand and finished the year with a hamstring injury. In 2008, he managed to stay healthy for most of the year, but visibly wore down towards the end of the year before missing the playoffs due to the elbow injury that also left him unsigned in 2009.
It was easy to be frustrated with Sheets, especially if you were one of the people who thought the injury proneness was related to a poor work ethic after he landed the big contract. Even I found myself groaning “not again” when he was unable to finish the 2008 season, and I tend to be a pretty optimistic guy that doesn’t like to criticize players.
But looking back, it’s a shame he didn’t get a proper farewell in front of the Milwaukee faithful. It’s a shame that so much bad luck left a bad taste in our mouths by the end of his Brewers career. It’s a shame that it appears bridges were burned between Sheets and the Brewers front office, meaning there was never any real chance of him returning.
Here’s to hoping that in the future, Sheets will be remembered the way he should be — one of the most dominating pitchers to ever wear a Brewers uniform. Do we wish things would have gone differently? Of course. But let’s celebrate what he was, and not criticize what he wasn’t.