Is Arizona going three Sheets for Ben?

Baseball trades, rumors and blog coverage - SB Nation MLB Hot Stove

You probably recall the discussion last month, prompted by Jeff Moorad's revelation on an online chat, that Arizona was still looking to acquire a starter. There, we discussed the possible candidates, writing that "It may be worth taking a flier on someone like Brad Penny on a one-year deal," and it appears that the front-office already had the wheels turning on that.

However, former D-back Penny [part of the trade to Florida for Matt Mantei - one of the most questionable deals, in hindsight, in franchise history] ended up signing with the Red Sox instead. He'll get a one-year deal at a guaranteed $5m, with another $3m in performance-related incentives. According to Buster Olney [in an ESPN Insider piece, so I don't have a link or full details], the D'Backs "took a serious run" at Penny, but I wonder if that prohibition on incentives again hampered our negotiations.

In his latest blog, Nick Piecoro floats the idea of the team aggressively going after Ben Sheets. Let's take a closer look at that possibility. The obvious downside is Sheets' track record with regard to injury. Over the past three seasons, Sheets has made a total of 72 starts - that's a couple less than Randy Johnson. Over the past few years, he's been sidelined by a litany of injuries leading to DL time, including an inner-ear infection which caused balance problems, shoulder tendinitis and a strained hamstring. [The variety is probably a good thing, perhaps suggesting Sheets is more unlucky, than suffering from a chronic problem]

Now, it's good that he did make 31 starts this season, the first since 2004 he's reached the 30-appearance mark. Not so good was the way it finished: of his final three scheduled appearances, one was skipped and he left the others after 2 and 2.1 innings respectively. Sheets admitted afterwards that he'd been suffering from forearm tightness for the preceding month. This may have been a result of his usage pattern: Sheets was ranked #8 in total Pitcher Abuse Points in the majors this year [it won't surprise you to learn Lincecum and Sabathia were #1 + 2!], which seems cavalier of the Brewers' management, given his track record.

That's something which would probably be much less of an issue in Arizona. The most "abused" pitcher for the Diamondbacks last year was Doug Davis: he only comes in at #30 on the list [142 pitchers had 100+ innings], and his low-impact mechanics suggest he's less likely to be damaged by extra pitches than a fireballer. Bryan Price and Bob Melvin otherwise seem good at managing the workload and not letting their starters over-extend themselves, which is where the PAP really mound. It's based on the cube of the number of pitches over a hundred, so 101 = one point, 102 = eight points, 103 = 27 points, and so on.

The lure is what Sheets can do, if he can stay healthy.. Since 2004, he has an ERA+ of 137, good for fifth among the sixty pitchers with 750 IP or more. That's a better number than Jake Peavy (134), Carlos Zambrano (131) or CC Sabathia (130). His K-rate over that time is an extremely healthy 8.42, and his strikeout-walk ratio is the best in the majors at 5.16 [Johan Santana is next best, all the way back at 4.56].One black mark as far as pitching for the Diamondbacks goes, is Sheets' fly-ball tendencies. His G/F ratio last season was 0.71, which ranked well below average (94th of 142), and might be problematic in a hitter-friendly park such as Chase.

Still, given his past success, it seems strange that teams have not been all over his free-agent case, but Jon Heyman of SI says, "There's no evidence Ben Sheets has received any proposals for two years or more," citing his injury risk as a concern. The Yankees, one expected suitor, appear out after getting two other big names, and the Mets are going after Derek Lowe at the moment. [though he's reportedly unimpressed with their $36m, three-year offer]. The main contender for Sheets right now appear to be the Rangers: Nick mentions the Orioles, but I haven't seen much on the newswire suggesting they've been actively pursuing the pitcher. 

The problem is, of course, money. The Diamondbacks don't have very much to spend this winter. Piecoro floats the idea of a heavily future-skewed deal like this: $4 million in 2009, $8 million in 2010, $12 million in 2011 with a team option for 2012 worth $12 million, including a $3 million buyout. That's $27m guaranteed, over three years with a team option for a fourth, with the bulk of that coming late. Doug Davis comes off the books this year, and Brandon Webb looks increasingly unlikely to be a Diamondback after 2010 [Nick reports Josh Byrnes terse answer when asked it there'd been any progress on extending Webb as, "No," followed by silence], which is when Byrnes' contract ends too. So a back-loaded contract would appear doable.

The question is, how actively should we do it? There's no denying Sheets is an injury risk, and it would take a great deal of attention to his medical records and a serious physical to establish whether the frequency of his trips to the disabled list have had any kind of cumulative effect. I should also point out that there is no independent corroboration about us pursuing Sheets beyond the Piecoro piece. However, as my conspiratorial leanings tell me, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, and I don't recall hearing a great deal about the arrival of Dan Haren before it happened last season. We'll see what happens, but the remaining free-agent starters are beginning to look thin, as far as quality goes. Time may be running out, if Moorad's words are to prove accurate.

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