His elbow, which had a tendon repaired in surgery a year ago, is fine. He backed up low-90s fastballs with more low-90s fastballs when lots of scouts were watching in a mid-January workout, so the elbow really is OK, as far as he knows.
His head, which he tried to focus on baseball but mostly was consumed by rehab, is good to go. He stood out in the misty chill here late Sunday morning and wrapped it around a bullpen session with almost no effort. He looked vaguely like Ben Sheets again.
But, and here's the thing, he's not much for spring training results. And he knows after all this time off – he hasn't thrown a pitch that counted since Sept. 27, 2008 – and after another birthday passed (he's 31) and considering the Oakland A's aren't in the habit of throwing $10 million at any old whim with a name, it would be better to look sharp and dominant and generally ace-like from Day 1. And, actually, it's not that he doesn't care about making a good impression. He does. It's just that his springs usually don't look that pretty, no matter where he is or what he does or how hard he tries.
"Oh, they're trouble," he says in the clubhouse before he gets to the bullpen. "I don't know why. Every spring I'm trying to get those sumsabitches out, just ain't happenin'."
Probably the problem lies in Sheets' repertoire, such as it is. He throws a fastball and a hard curveball, so when one isn't working, he's down by half a repertoire.
"I throw two pitches," he says, then laughs. "They better show up."
Point is, he hopes no one gets too concerned. He likes what he sees and hears after a couple of days with the A's, and he fully plans to be part of it right to the end, unlike in 2008, when his Milwaukee Brewers advanced to the playoffs just as his elbow was unraveling, and unlike last season, which he sat out entirely.
His goal is to throw 200 innings for the first time since 2004 – "Nobody has to tell me it's been a while," he says – and maybe show a few young men in this clubhouse there's a difference between surviving a season and winning ballgames. He'd like to get back there himself, so he was swayed when A's GM Billy Beane told him these A's were ready to win, that a young and impressionable pitching staff could use a guy who wouldn't mind standing out in front of it all and, by the way, here's the 10 mil that Adrian Beltre(notes), Aroldis Chapman(notes) and Marco Scutaro(notes) turned down.
"When Billy came in and before any talk about money he went on about how excited he was about this team, I thought he spoke honestly," said Sheets, who could have gone to the New York Mets and Texas Rangers, among others. "Just the way he sold his team was good enough for me."
It's true, the A's are a bit on the small-market/low-revenue end to risk that kind of money on a recently repaired and untested elbow. But Beane doesn't mind feeling out a high-end talent for a few months, then moving him to a contender if the Los Angeles Angels are too far out in front.
"Is there a risk? Sure," Beane says. "But if we didn't do it, having the cash in our hands wasn't going to do it, either. Listen, we've got a long way to go. We started on the outside rail and still feel that way."
Beane believes in this pitching staff, however, in a bullpen that was among the best in the game last season despite (and ultimately because of) the rookie closer and in a starting rotation that didn't always look pretty but was very young and never stopped grinding and maybe grew a little hair on its chest because of it. In 2009, the A's starter was 25 or younger 146 times. That's ridiculous. Not surprisingly, the A's ranked near the bottom of the American League in quality starts and starters' ERA and innings pitched. Now they hope they will lead the league in learning from their young and dumb mistakes. Even then, A's pitchers went one-six (Andrew Bailey(notes)-Brett Anderson) in Rookie of the Year voting. When the season ended, and they were 22 games out of first, a lot of them still were standing. That's something.
"To think where they were a year ago today," manager Bob Geren muses.
Now, to Anderson, Dallas Braden(notes), Justin Duchscherer(notes), Trevor Cahill(notes) and the likes of Vin Mazzaro(notes) and Gio Gonzalez(notes) – "A core," Geren says, "that could dominate for years" – they add Sheets, country strong and game stubborn, who last was seen pitching through pain and injury and vials of Cortisone to get the Brewers to their first playoff game in more than a generation. He could have stopped weeks before, should have probably, but couldn't.
"We were right there," he says. "I wasn't going to give the ball back then."
He's just getting the ball again, after an awfully long wait, a whole season gone in the prime of his career. The excitement is in his voice, in a Louisiana drawl complicated further by a bite of raisin bagel. He loves the opportunity, the ballpark, the challenge of the American League, all on a fresh elbow.
"Until a batter gets in there you don't know where you're at," he says. "I can tell you at a later date. But what I expect is to get out there and compete. I'm here, but it ain't rewarding yet. It'll be rewarding after a win."
Fifty feet from Sheets, Braden was timing his move.
"You learn how to be a real big-league pitcher from a guy like that," Braden says. "Last year we were kind of learning on the fly."
He wanted to know how Sheets' mind worked, what he thought about in 1-and-1 counts, what he saw in hitters that Braden didn't. Maybe he shouldn't expect too much too soon. It's spring, and they're never that kind to Sheets.
"I think," Braden says, smiling, "I'll let him get his uniform on first."
- Ben Sheets
- Billy Beane