On Thursday, the MLB Network asked me to prepare a segment on the best “under-the-radar” acquisitions this season.
I immediately thought of Ben Sheets, and sent an email to Braves general manager Frank Wren asking him for some background.
Wren called me and explained that he preferred to talk rather than respond by email.
“I’d be typing for an hour,” he said.
Yes, the story is that good.
In fact, Sheets became a Brave in part because of his son Seaver, 10, who — as you might have guessed — is named after Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.
Sheets, 34, was the coach of Seaver’s travel-ball team. The family resides in Monroe, La. And on the final weekend of June, the team had a tournament in Atlanta.
If you’re thinking, “Hmmm, home-court advantage for the Braves,” you’re on the right track.
Sheets, who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2010, already had auditioned for the Braves and other teams at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
But seeing as how he was headed to Atlanta anyway, he chose to throw a five-inning simulated game at Georgia Tech, not far from the Braves’ home park, Turner Field.
Victor Menocal, an associate of Sheets’ agent, Casey Close, had been a standout shortstop and volunteer coach at Tech, and helped arrange for the workout, which took place June 28.
Scouts from the Royals, Phillies, Rangers and Cardinals watched Sheets face college hitters; the Yankees and Angels had seen him throw earlier in Louisiana.
The Braves were hosting the Diamondbacks that night Wren, Braves assistant GM Bruce Manno and director of professional scouting John Coppolella slipped out of Turner Field during batting practice to head over to Georgia Tech.
Sheets threw 80 pitches. In 100-degree heat.
His fastball sat at 90 mph, reached 92. He spun his trademark breaking ball, showed an improved changeup.
“I wasn’t thinking I was looking at some broken-down guy trying to make a comeback,” Wren said. “I’m sitting there watching, saying, ‘That’s Ben Sheets.’”
Ben Sheets, who won the gold-medal game for the US in the 2000 Olympics, started the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium and was one of the best pitchers in the National League for the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Braves’ contingent was intrigued. And, as luck would have it, Sheets was planning to attend the Braves’ game that night with his son’s team. He had bought tickets, through group sales, in the left-field stands.
Wren, upon returning from the workout, went straight to his manager, Fredi Gonzalez, and pitching coach, Roger McDowell. He told them that the Braves were going to try to sign Sheets, and asked McDowell when the team could plug him into the rotation.
McDowell picked July 15, the Sunday after the All-Star break. Sheets first would make two starts for the Braves’ Double-A affiliate in Pearl, Miss., about a 1 1/2-hour drive from his home.
The Braves determined that Sheets would throw five innings and 75 pitches in his first start, six innings and 90 pitches in his second. Wren said that Sheets already had built up his arm, throwing 22 100-pitch bullpen sessions.
Now it was time to chat.
Wren invited Sheets, Close and Menocal to visit him and his assistants in the GM’s private box during the sixth inning. Close had told Wren, “It’s important for Ben to know you have a plan.” The Braves had a plan, all right. Wren showed Close a daily schedule that the team had outlined for Sheets over the next three weeks.
“That’s perfect,” Close said. “Give it to Ben.”
Sheets checked it over, looked at Close and said, “I told you I’m ready to go 75 pitches right away!”
But seriously, Sheets was impressed.
“It wasn’t how aggressive it was,” Sheets said of the Braves’ plan. “It was how they showed their desire to get me in their rotation.
“Even if it took me longer than two starts, they wanted me in that rotation. (Wren) was letting me know, ‘We want you to get there. We’re signing you to get there.’”
The meeting ended, and Sheets and his agents returned to their seats in left field for the final two innings. Wren called down to the Braves’ clubhouse and asked an attendant to bring out two dozen Braves caps for the kids on Sheets’ team.
A few minutes later, Wren peered through his binoculars, saw the kids wearing the caps and noticed Sheets looking toward his box, flashing a thumbs-up.
“We were laughing,” Sheets said. “Me and Casey said, ‘Let’s give him a thumbs-up. I’m sure he’s looking at us.’ That was a pretty nice gesture. It made the kids so excited.”
Two days later, Sheets reached agreement with the Braves on a minor league contract. He would earn a pro-rated portion of $2.25 million, or just more than $1 million from the time he joined the major league club. The deal also included a potential $1.4 million in appearance and roster bonuses. Sheets already has reached half of them, and can max out if he makes 12 starts and stays on the roster 60 days.
The Braves’ offer wasn’t necessarily the best offer, Sheets said, but the situation was perfect. He preferred to be in the NL. The Braves’ Mississippi affiliate was close to his home. Turner Field, in Sheets’ view, was “a pretty good pitchers’ park.” He also liked pitching in the humidity of the Southeast.
Wren, in turn, thought Sheets a great fit.
“The thing that grabs you when you’re around Ben Sheets is how passionate he is about the game,” Wren said. “He’s very much a baseball guy. The total package is off the charts.”
Sheets even made a powerful impression during his brief time at Double-A Mississippi — the team’s pitching coach, Mike Alvarez, told Wren that he “changed our club and dugout in three days,” talking baseball, giving pointers to his younger teammates.
On July 6, Sheets stood along the dugout rail with the club’s pitchers, predicting the pitches that Mississippi’s Sean Gilmartin would throw as the left-hander worked into the late innings of a nine-inning start.
The younger pitchers, dumbfounded, asked Sheets how he did it. Sheets replied, “We’ve played this team three days in a row.” Translation: Pay attention. Watch the hitters. Learn from their reactions.
Of course, Sheets wasn’t in Mississippi long.
On July 15, right on schedule, he returned to the majors and threw six shutout innings against the Mets. He since has made three other starts, and is 3-1 with a 1.46 ERA, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning.
His fastball, averaging 93.3 mph according to fangraphs.com, isn’t what it once was — Sheets averaged 97.4 in 2008, before he underwent surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon, and 96 mph in 2010, before he had his Tommy John.
Still, Sheets is encouraged.
“My breaking ball is probably as good as it’s been since 2005-06,” Sheets said. “The perception is that I’ve always had a good breaking ball. But it’s been average the past three years.
“I don’t know if the 2 mph I’m dreaming of will ever come back. I feel like if it did, it would push me over the top and I would become a very good pitcher again.”
Actually, he is a very good pitcher right now.
A very good pitcher for the team he watched from the stands just more than a month ago, as the coach of his son’s travel-ball team.