Every year there are a few free agents who were once good, but who have succumbed to injury. They’re a baseball fan’s dream. We imagine the best of all possible worlds, an incentive laden contract that protects against loss and maximizes reward. If only the front office were smart enough to understand that, they’d have a great pitcher. Alas, only one team gets the player, and it’s usually not our favorite one.
This year’s free agent class features three of these pitchers. Erik Bedard, Rich Harden, and Ben Sheets should all be fine for Opening Day 2010, but each had trouble staying healthy in 2009. At their best they’re all very good pitchers, but because of the health questions they probably won’t cash in this off-season. That is, unless there’s a reason to believe that the injury concern isn’t too great.
Ben Sheets is a familiar name to Yankees fans. He was one of the top free agent pitchers last year, and therefore was on the Yankees radar. Before he revealed the severity of his elbow injury, Sheets was considered an alternative to A.J. Burnett — and he might even have been the better choice. After surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow, Sheets played the waiting game, but ultimately did not pitch in 2009.
This could be a good thing, says Keith Law.
The year off may do him wonders, as he’s had a lot of non-arm injuries that have limited his workload for the past few years, and he was never terrible when pitching at less than 100 percent. So as this type of pitcher goes, he’s a pretty good value; not much downside with the upside of a No. 2 starter who might give you 160-180 innings.
In comparing Sheets to Burnett last off-season, Mike listed Sheets’s injury history. Law is right that Sheets has suffered many non-arm injuries, including a viral and ear infection in 2005, a torn lat in the same year, and a sprained middle finger in 2007. His most serious arm injury was a right shoulder strain in 2006, which kept him on the DL barely more than the minimum, but which also came up a month later, causing him to miss more than two months.
The latest injury is of concern, of course, raises concern because it was an arm injury. A torn flexor tendon isn’t considered as serious as a torn ligament, but it’s still an arm injury. Some teams just can’t afford to take that risk, even for a pitcher like Sheets. That will depress his market value a bit, but I’m not sure he’ll be a true bargain. There are plenty of teams that could use a pitcher like him, and I think it might mean a higher base salary and fewer incentives.
Even if other teams aren’t offering a high base, the Yankees might have to. As Tyler Kepner notes, the price on Sheets “would probably be low enough that the Yankees could afford to outbid other teams.” That’s the way things usually work with the Yankees. They have money and everyone knows it. So when the Yankees want a player that other teams want, they sometimes have to pay a premium. It’s one reason why the Yankees payroll is so high, but that’s a topic for another day.
Ben Sheets would be a great addition to any team. His injury history, and especially his latest one, make him a bigger risk than others, but his upside is perhaps the best on the free agent market. The Yankees liked Sheets when they met with him last off-season, and could certainly pursue him again this year. He’d be a gamble, and the Yankees might have to pay a premium for him, but if it works out the 2010 staff will be greatly strengthened.