Affluent A’s Courting Ben Sheets, Johnny Damon

As spring training approaches, most teams have expended their offseason budgets, but the typically frugal Oakland Athletics have plenty left to spend.

General manager Billy Beane already has added outfielders Coco Crisp and Jake Fox, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and infielder Aaron Miles to his roster this winter. But according to Cot’s Contracts, the A’s still have just $35.4 million in payroll commitments for 2010, after shelling out $62.3 million last season.

The cost-conscious Beane certainly won’t add $27 million to the books over the coming month, but after enduring a 75-87 campaign and finishing last in an increasingly competitive American League West Division, he knows there’s plenty of work to be done if Oakland is to once again master “the art of winning an unfair game.”

At the top of Beane’s wish list is a veteran starting pitcher with the upside necessary to shore up a youthful rotation. Oakland’s starters combined to post a 4.76 ERA last season, despite playing half their games in one of the league’s most pitcher-friendly parks. After the Mariners reeled in Cliff Lee and the Angels signed Joel Pineiro, the ball is in Beane’s court to bolster his staff.

His target, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney via Twitter, is former Milwaukee Brewers ace Ben Sheets.

The 31-year-old Sheets is one of baseball’s most dominant starters when healthy, but he missed the 2009 season while recovering from surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his elbow, and averaged just 23.5 starts over the previous four years. On the other hand, Sheets logged a 3.09 ERA over 31 starts for the Brewers as recently as 2008 and looked sharp during a throwing session for scouts on Jan. 20, exhibiting the potential that could endear him to Oakland.

And it’s worth noting that Sheets could be particularly valuable to the A’s, because even if the team has fallen out of contention by summer, a solid first half from the right-hander would enable Beane to trade him for a nice bounty of prospects to add to his already impressive collection of young talent.

However, there are indications that as many as eight teams could be pursuing Sheets, and he is expected to use the bidding war to earn an annual salary of at least $7.5 million. Beane will doubtless go hard after his prized target, but according to Olney, he wisely has a Plan B.

The alternative for Beane appears to be bringing back Johnny Damon, who was acquired by the A’s prior to the 2001 season, and spent a year in Oakland before signing with the Red Sox in free agency the following winter. Damon hit .282 with a .365 OBP and .489 slugging percentage for the Yankees last season, using Yankee Stadium’s short porch to tie a career high with 24 home runs. The 36-year-old would offer a nice boost to an Oakland offense that ranked third-worst in the AL with a .726 OPS in 2009.

The market for Damon has been slow to develop this winter, after the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson and inked Nick Johnson. The veteran is likely to settle for a one-year deal worth far less than the $13.6 million in value he produced last year and is even kicking around the idea of retiring. He too could be an attractive trade deadline commodity to contenders seeking a stable bat down the stretch, boosting his value to the aggressively rebuilding A’s.

Either Sheets or Damon would be an intriguing addition to an Athletics team that drew the smallest crowds of any major league franchise last season.

TMZ logo

© 2019 NESN

Partner of USATODAY Sports Digital Properties