Remembering the Sheffield Era

(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

After more than two decades in the big leagues, Gary Sheffield officially called it a career yesterday, 16 months after playing in his final game. He suited up for eight different teams and was an All-Star with five of them, thrice finishing in the top three of the MVP voting but never taking home the hardware. A career .292/.393/.514 hitter with 509 homers and far more walks (1,475) than strikeouts (1,171), Sheff was a brilliant offensive force on the field and a jerk off it.

When he joined the Yankees prior to the 2004 season, he did so only because George Steinbrenner wanted him. Just about everyone else preferred Vladimir Guerrero, who was six years younger than Sheff and more multi-dimensional, capable of beating you with his bat, his speed, or his arm. Instead it was Sheffield who joined the Yankees, at the cost of a three-year contract and a little more than $36M. After dealing with Raul Mondesi for the past two years, the Yanks finally had a capable replacement for Paul O’Neill in right field.

Sheff stepped right into the heart of a rebuilt Yankees’ lineup in 2004, hitting fifth behind the likes of Kenny Lofton, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jason Giambi at the outset of the season. It wasn’t long before he forced his way into a more glamorous lineup spot, replacing Giambi as the cleanup hitter in late-May before forcing A-Rod down a spot and assuming three-hole responsibilities in late-June. Sheff led the team in slugging percentage (.534), OPS (.927), homers (36), and runs scored (117) that year, placing second in the AL MVP voting. The winner? That would be Guerrero, who hit .317/.394/.565 overall and .370/.427/.688 in the final 45 games of the season to get the Angels into the playoffs.

The Yankees quickly dispatched of the Twins in the ALDS that season, in part due to Sheffield’s game tying-two run homer off Brad Radke in Game Two. Like everyone else on the club, he demolished Red Sox pitching in the first three games of the ALDS (9-for-13 with three doubles and a homer) before seeing his bat fall silent in the final four contests (just 1-for-17). “I never thought it would end like this,” said Sheff after the series, echoing the thoughts of the city.

As it tends to do, time passed and the Yankees were back in action in 2005. A-Rod and Sheffield formed what was arguably the game’s most devastating three-four combo that year, hitting a collective .306/.401/.562 with 82 homers and 253 RBI. Sheff’s contribution to that was .291/.379/.512 with 34 homers and 123 RBI, a performance that led to an eighth place finish in the MVP voting. Alex took home the award. Perhaps his most memorable moment of the year came in mid-April, when a fan at Fenway Park hit him in the face as he fielded a ball in the right field corner. Sheff pushed the fan before firing the ball back to the infield, with security intervening before anything else could transpire.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

“Something hit me in the mouth. It felt like a hand,” Sheffield said afterward. “I thought my lip was busted. I tried to get his hand out of my face so I could continue on with the play. To get punched in the mouth, you don’t expect that in a baseball game. It could have been worse if I didn’t hold my composure. I almost snapped, but I thought about the consequences.”

The incident motivated the Yankees to another first place finish in the AL East, though they bowed out to the Angels in five games in the ALDS. Sheffield’s sixth inning run scoring single got the Yankees on the board in Game Four, helping them to a come-from-behind win that prolonged their season. His three hits in Game Five weren’t enough though, and for the second time in as many seasons with New York, his season came to a premature end.

At age 37, Sheffield came out of the gate on fire in 2006, hitting .341/.390/.516 with four homers in his first 22 games. He suffered a left wrist sprain after colliding with Shea Hillenbrand on April 29th, an injury that signaled the beginning of the end of Sheff’s tenure in the Bronx. After trying to play through the injury, Sheffield eventually hit the disabled list and had surgery to repair a dislocated tendon and torn ligaments in the wrist. He was expected to miss the remainder of the season, prompting the Yankees to go out and trade for Bobby Abreu as a replacement in right field and the three-spot of the lineup.

A late-September return found Sheffield without a defensive home, so the team had him try first base for the first time in his career. It was a disaster in every way, because Sheff wasn’t hitting after surgery or saving runs with his glove. A 1-for-12 effort against the Tigers helped the Yankees to their second straight ALDS exit. With Abreu on board and under contract for 2007 with an option for 2008, Brian Cashman had a choice to make. He picked up Sheff’s $13M club option and turned to the trade market.

The Sheffield era in the Bronx came to an end similar to the way the Sheffield era ended in Milwaukee, Florida, Los Angeles, and eventually Detroit. He ran his mouth on his way out the door, calling out then-manager Joe Torre for what he felt was preferential treatment towards white players. After the HBO Real Sports interviewer pointed out that the team’s most popular player, Derek Jeter, was African American, Sheff responded by saying he “ain’t all the way black.” Bridges were burned and Sheffield was hastily traded to the Tigers on November 10th, less than two weeks after the end of the World Series, for three minor league pitchers.

Sheffield was tremendously productive during his time in New York, just like he was everywhere else. He hit .291/.383/.515 with 76 homers in 347 games for the Bombers, providing big hits and MVP-caliber performances in 2004 and 2005. His famous bat waggle and lightning quick swing were mimicked by kids playing wiffle ball all over the Tri-State Area, but in the end, Sheffield’s temper and paranoid racist thoughts led to a swift and unceremonious exit. His comments resulted in boos every time he came back to Yankee Stadium as a visiting player. Sheff retires with one World Series ring (1997 Marlins) and a long and remarkable career that should get him some Hall of Fame consideration, but his insecurities, occasional selfishness, and off-the-field persona have left a bad taste in the mouths of many.

Open Thread: February 17th Camp Notes

Girardi's gonna beat his ass for that yawn. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The latest from Spring Training

Slow day, but I always say no news is good news. Anyways, here’s your open thread. The Isles and Rangers are both playing, but talk about whatever. Have at it.

Quick site note: I’ve updated the Spring Training television schedule post now that the MLB Network has announced the games they’re broadcasting. The new dates added are March 12th (@ Nationals), 20th (@ Phillies), 21st (@ Rays), and 23rd (vs. Blue Jays). The first three will be on tape delay though.

2011 Draft: KLaw’s Top 50 Prospects

Keith Law posted his list of the top 50 draft prospects today (Insider req’d), which is unsurprisingly led by Rice 3B Anthony Rendon. UConn OF George Springer and that Gerrit Cole kid round out the top three. I’m a sucker for big high school arms, so the 48th ranked RHP Taylor Guerrieri (“Up to 96 in the fall and in early workouts,” listed at 6-foot-3, 180 lbs.) intrigues me. If you’re into college pitchers, RHP Scott Lyman of UC Davis (“will sit 93-95 with a hammer curveball and some feel for a changeup”) is ranked 47th and could be in the mix for the Yankees with the 51st overall pick.

That gives you an idea of how deep this draft class is. A college kid that sits 93-95 with a hammer curve is usually ranked top ten or top fifteen, not almost 50th.

Yanks trying to monopolize mediocrity, still interested in Millwood

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees are still interested in bringing Kevin Millwood aboard, but remain adamant that they will not pay a significant price for him. In fact, they may only be open to signing him on a minor league deal like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

As an interesting little sidebar, Joe Girardi said today that he’s “looking toward the veteran guys a little bit more” for the fourth and fifth starter spots, which ties into something Sherman wrote. It’s entirely possible that the Yankees could start the season with both Colon and Garcia (or Millwood) in the rotation, Sergio Mitre in the bullpen, and Ivan Nova in Triple-A. Both Colon and Garcia can become free agents if they make the team, and Mitre’s out-of-options. Starting the season with that alignment allows them to keep everyone and evaluate a little further into the season. Not saying I agree with it, but it’s certainly a viable option.

The RAB Radio Show: February 17, 2011

The Yanks have plenty going on in camp, but it’s a lot of little stuff rather than one big storyline. That, of course, makes for good radio. Mike and I talk about the 4th and 5th starter candidates, how the bullpen will factor into that, and then some on the offense. It’s a smorgasbord today on the RAB Radio Show.

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Fashionably late, Rivera shows up to camp

Man of the people. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

He’s few days late because of a sick kid, but Mariano Rivera reported to Spring Training today. “I’m here and I’m ready to work,” said Rivera. “I feel great.” The team obviously authorized the late arrival, but much like everything else that surrounds Mo, there is no reason to worry.

“Whenever Mo gets here is fine,” said Brian Cashman yesterday, showing that Rivera’s tardiness was of no real concern to the team. “I don’t want him getting any ideas next year,” joked skipper Joe Girardi. “He could have [stayed home] for a while.”

In fact, Rivera wouldn’t even have gotten near a mound yet had he reported on time. He’s long operated on his own schedule in the spring, doing nothing more than playing catch and running the pitcher’s fielding practice gamut for the first week or two or three. Rivera usually doesn’t make his first appearance in a game until there’s about three weeks left in camp, and he’ll only make seven, maybe eight appearances total. Last year it was six. Road trips? Yeah right, Mo doesn’t leave Tampa until the season starts.

“I know what it takes. I know what I have to accomplish,” said Rivera. “You earn that respect when you give everything you have, and that’s what I have done. It’s not right to talk about myself, but that’s what I have done all my career. If I needed time to do something, it’s not because I wanted to do it. It’s because I needed to do it. And now I’m here, and ready to work.”

Mo told Erik Boland that the toughest part about starting a new season is being separated from his family, unsurprising if you’ve followed the man’s career up to this point. He also said the “love and passion” for the game is still there despite his advanced age (41) and the fact that Rivera has accomplished everything a player could ever dream of accomplishing in a career. “I believe that I can do it one more time,” he said, interesting only because he signed a two-year contract.

Depending on who you ask, the Yankees need a dominant late-game presence this year to mitigate the depressing situation at the back of their rotation. I’m of the belief that the middle relief corps become more important when you have a poor rotation, not necessarily the end-game guys, but no one asked me. Rivera, as always, is the security blanket in the ninth inning, and this year he has a new running mate in the late innings.

“I will get to know him better,” said Mo of Rafael Soriano. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”

Well, they’re all interesting years in Yankeeland. The newest candidate to solve the “Bridge to Mariano” problem that has become almost comically overblown is Rafael Soriano, the latest in a long line of high-priced setup relievers with a fraction of Rivera’s success to their credit. Regardless of who’s occupied that role, be it Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, Mike Stanton, Kyle Farnsworth, Steve Karsay or whoever, Mo has always been the guy the Yankees counted on for key outs. No matter who they played or what time of year it was, they’ve always had at least one advantage over their opponents, and that’s the guy taking the mound for those last three outs.

The pitching gang is pretty much all there now that Rivera is in camp, what is likely the second to last Spring Training of his career. We’ve been spoiled beyond belief by his presence over the last decade-and-a-half, so these next two seasons are the perfect time, and really the last opportunity we have to sit back and appreciate Mariano’s greatness. There’s never going to be another one like him.

Brackman’s chances of making the team

(Julie Jacobson/AP)

It has become tough to believe Brian Cashman‘s public statements. During the past five or so years he has put up many fronts — Bubba Crosby in center field, signing Teixeira as “fantasy land” — which makes it difficult to determine when he’s truthful and when he’s speaking strategically. Yet there are some statements that just feel true. Cashman made one of them yesterday at camp. As Mark Feinsand reports:

[Dellin] Betances and [Manny] Banuelos aren’t earning spots in the rotation out of spring training. They’re going to get their first taste of big-league camp, then they’re going to get slotted into Trenton. They have no chance to make this team.

That comes as no surprise. While Betances and Banuelos both rank highly on most prospect lists, they’re a bit short on experience. Banuelos has thrown just 215.2 innings during his three years pitching in the Yankees’ organization, and Betances has thrown just 299.2 in his five seasons. To place them in the bigs at the outset would likely hamper their development. In fact, given their lack of experience and presumptive workload limits, it’s doubtful that we see either of them in the majors this season.

What’s interesting is what Cashman didn’t say. Not only did he leave a couple of names off of his “no chance” list, but he came out later and reinforced that point.

The other guys are all competing for anything. They’re more advanced, they have more experience and they’re in a better position. Betances and Banuelos may help us down the line, but they’re not coming to camp here to help us now or solve any problems. They’re not advanced enough to be in a position to do that.

The most conspicuous omission is Andrew Brackman, the other Yankees’ top pitching prospect. He made serious strides last season, finishing the year with a 3.01 ERA in 80.2 innings at AA. It would appear that he has a ways to go, but he is also a bit further along than Betances and Banuelos. He’s older, and he has pitched more innings in recent years. While he has just 247.1 innings himself, 140.2 of them came last season. He also has about 150 innings of college ball, which means roughly 400 post-high school innings. That trumps both of the other B’s.

This isn’t to say that Brackman has a real shot to make the team. He, too, probably needs a bit more seasoning in the minors. After all, it was just a year ago that he had fallen off most prospect lists and risked being labeled a bust. There are worse things than having him start the year in AAA. The Yankees do have a number of veteran options with whom they could start the season, leaving Brackman as a backup option if they fail. He, David Phelps, and Hector Noesi are probably best served in this role.

Chances are we’ll see Brackman pitching in the majors, whether in the rotation or in the bullpen, at some point this season. Out of camp, though, it would take quite a showing, combined with quite a meltdown from a couple of other leading candidates, for him to make the team. That’s not a bad thing. If anything it speaks to the team’s depth. They might not have the most favorable situation presently, but it’s pretty clear that their third-best, and most developed, pitching prospect has a chance to help the team this year.