If the Red Sox want to dig deep into the bargain bin for some starting pitching help for next season, they can try pursuing one hurler who was out of baseball entirely in 2009.
The name Ben Sheets is one that's fallen out of the baseball world over the course of the past year. He was a National League All-Star four times in his first eight seasons, including once as a rookie in 2001 before earning back-to-back selections in 2007 and '08. Then injuries set in, and we all forgot he existed.
Sheets became a free agent after the 2008 season, and his timing could not have been worse. On paper, his stock looked high: He had just gone 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA and three shutouts, the most in the National League. But when news surfaced that winter that Sheets had a torn flexor tendon in his elbow that needed surgery, no one would touch him.
The Mets and Rangers were the only two teams even to kick the tires. Both clubs talked to the then-30-year-old righty that January, but neither was able to reach a deal. So Sheets underwent his elbow surgery, rehabbed at a clinic in Texas, and generally stayed off the radar throughout 2009.
Sheets is back now and his elbow is healthy — but that's not the only health concern in his checkered past. Over the nine years he's been in the major leagues, Sheets has encountered herniated discs in his back, ear infections, a strained hamstring and incessant arm troubles. If anyone's going to take a chance on Sheets now, they better be careful.
But Sheets, who last pitched on Sept. 27, 2008, insists that he's now healthy. Rumor has it that sources close to Sheets say he is rehabilitated, throwing off flat ground and "expects to be more than ready to go" this spring.
Sheets has never had a shortage of pride. Last winter, he was offered arbitration by the Brewers with a chance to make more than the $12,125,000 he raked in in 2008 — instead, he said no and attempted to test the open market. He thought he was worth even more.
Sheets has always believed in himself. The question is whether baseball's 30 general managers will believe in him too. And as GMs go, the Red Sox' Theo Epstein is as good a match as any. Epstein and the Boston brass have insinuated this month that they believe in the low-risk, high-reward method of going after pitchers — and it may not have worked too well with John Smoltz and Brad Penny this season, but that doesn't mean the Sox are done trying.
"Could we end up with another buy-low, high-upside, low-risk starting pitcher somewhere on the roster?" Epstein asked last week in an interview with MLB.com. "Sure. And if it doesn't work out, we'll move on."
Sounds simple enough.
The Red Sox have a chance to make a killing with Sheets. In eight years with the Brewers, he gave them 1,206 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.72. In 2008, he and CC Sabathia made up arguably the best 1-2 starting pitching duo in the major leagues. If he's healthy, he can build that same dynamic again by pairing up with another power lefty — like, say, Jon Lester.
Sheets is likely to be a bargain this winter. His last contract was a whopper — after his career year in 2004, the Brewers rewarded him with a four-year, $38.5 million extension that carried him through last season. But now that he's on the wrong side of 30 (turning 32 around the All-Star break next season) and he's had a year away from the game, he can likely be had cheaply.
If the Sox can secure Sheets with an offer of $5 or $6 million, they should seriously consider it. Sheets has been down and out over the past year, but he's ready to make his return. Boston loves a comeback like this one.