It's hard to remember now, but a little over a decade ago, Ben Sheets was one of the most hyped pitching prospects around. In between then and now, there were bouts of dominance, but more memorably, one injury after another. His elbow knocked him out of the league initially back in 2010, but that was just the last of many arm problems. At least, until his shoulder cut his return short in 2012.
Sheets will make the last appearance of his career on Wednesday. He got through 10 seasons in the majors -- most of them productive -- but there could have been much more. That said, though, Sheets achieved much during his peak, even while dealing with substantial arm injuries.
Sheets was drafted by the Brewers in the first round back in 1999, 10th overall. He was a First Team All-American pitcher in his final year at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and he struck out a batter per inning in the High-A California League over five starts and 27 innings. It was expected Sheets would be fast-tracked to the majors, thanks to his well-developed repertoire of a sinking, low-to-mid-90s fastball and 12-to-6 curve to go along with his change-up. His performance at High-A did nothing to dispel that notion.
Sheets became more of a recognized name than most prospects thanks to the Olympics in 2000, but his performance in the minors didn't hurt, either. Baseball America was understandably effusive about him after the 2000 season, when they rated him the fifth-best prospect in all of the minors:
Sheets removed any doubts about his readiness to embark on a major league career with his remarkable performance for the United States in the Sydney Olympics. Immediately tabbed as the team ace, Sheets lived up to that billing and then some with a stunning shutout of favored Cuba in the gold-medal game... "He has a burning desire to be a major league player," Brewers farm director Greg Riddoch said. "He rose to the occasion in the biggest game of his life. That tells you all you need to know."
Beyond his repertoire, Sheets is an intense competitor who doesn't lose his cool on the mound. Everyone involved with Team USA raved about the way he handled himself on the mound, especially against the intimidating Cuban hitters.
Sheets made the Brewers out of spring training as expected, and ended up in 25 starts while throwing 151 innings. The Brewers didn't push him, as he averaged six innings and 95 pitches per outing, but the 22-year-old still went to the disabled list from August 6 through September 21 with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. In the starts leading up to this DL stint, Sheets struggled, posting an 8.58 ERA in July and August that ruined his overall performance.
There were improvements each season, with Sheets' strikeout-to-walk ratio rising from 2.0 to 2.4 to 3.7, and finally to a league-leading 8.3 in his fourth season. The strikeouts rose and fell, but more importantly, his control and command improved, all while Sheets showed off an ability to throw a significant number of innings. While he couldn't escape his first major-league campaign without time on the DL, he didn't suffer an injury of any kind again -- even day-to-day -- until 2005.
In between, Sheets averaged 225 innings per year, with over four times as many strikeouts as walks. He finished eighth in the Cy Young vote in 2004, despite leading in K/BB, posting a 162 ERA+, and striking out 10 batters per nine. Sheets' ERA+ topped all but one of the starters that finished in front of him, and voters decided that closers Brad Lidge and Eric Gagne were more valuable than an arm that tossed 237 innings of 2.70 ERA ball. Possibly more insulting was Carl Pavano finishing ahead of him.
It should be noted that the Brewers let Sheets throw a ton of innings, but didn't let his pitch count climb. In 2002, he averaged 103 pitches per start, and in 2003, just 98. The 2004 season saw him at 105 per, but he was also 25 at this point, two years past the riskiest portion of the injury nexus for young pitchers. He went deep into games, but he did so efficiently. The Brewers' version of Mark Prior this was not.
2004 was the only season in which both the brilliance of his stuff would be matched with an ability to stay on the mound. Sheets averaged a 126 ERA+ for the rest of his Brewers' career, but went on the disabled list on three separate occasions for his shoulder -- including a 60-day stint in 2006 that cost him 72 games -- and then missed all of 2009 due to elbow surgery.
Sheets joined up with the A's on a one-year, $10 million deal for 2010. Sheets posted his first below-average performance since the early aughts, and then had his season cut short by a second elbow surgery, this one for Tommy John. It was looking like that might be it for Sheets, despite the potential and his being all of 31, thanks to a body that wouldn't allow him to pitch.
The competitive spirit his coaches praised over a decade before kicked in, though, and Sheets returned in 2012 for the Atlanta Braves, who had signed him to a minor-league deal. Sheets lasted just eight starts before his shoulder knocked him out, but he looked better this time around, posting a 114 ERA+, striking out 2.5 times more batters than he walked. His shoulder still isn't right -- will it ever be? -- but the Braves have clinched a wild card, and Sheets plans to end his career. With any luck, he'll remind us on his way out of why we enjoyed watching him so much to begin with.