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Sheets and the New Market

Rumors have been floating around for most of the offseason that former Milwaukee Brewer Ben Sheets is looking for a contract that would eclipse 10 million dollars before incentives were included. Unfortunately for Ben – I’m a big fan, as he was the first true ace pitcher for whom I watched nearly ever start – he (or more likely, his agent) is likely not going to get what he’s seeking.

Ben Sheets, during his prime with the Brewers, was inarguably an excellent pitcher. After a rough rookie year, Sheets settled in as the Brewers ace for the next 7 years. Injuries were an issue, but he still put up at least 140 IP in all but one season, and when he was on the field, he was great. He has a career 3.56 FIP and totaled a whopping 29.8 wins from 2002-2008, an average of 4.3 wins per season.

Unfortunately, just as the Brewers were making a playoff run that will be remembered for ages in Milwaukee, Sheets injured his elbow, and ended up missing the 2008 playoffs and all of the 2009 season. Now, he’s ready to return, but given his injury history and the fact that he missed a year, what kind of performance can we expect from him?

Every time Sheets has returned from injury (every year since 2005, basically), he’s pitched well the next season. His worst year since was 2007, where he still posted a 4.11 FIP and was worth 2.2 wins. He’s going to strike guys out – a 7 K/9 is probably the lower bound for him, and his control is excellent – a 3 BB/9 is probably the upper bound. The question mark for Sheets isn’t so much performance, but how many innings he can pitch.

Fan projections have him at 132 IP for 2010. CHONE has him at 114. These two projections have him at 2.7 WAR and 2.0 WAR respectively. Even if you generously project him for 150, you get something in the 2.6-3.1 WAR range as a projection for Sheets. Given the roughly $3.5M/WAR figure we’ve seen this offseason, a fair range for a dollar amount would be 9-11 million dollars, and that’s at the very top end of the projections.

A more likely range for Sheets’s production is 2.0-2.5 WAR, and based on how the offseason has gone for Rich Harden – better and more recent production, actually pitched last year – and Erik Bedard – no contract yet and limited rumors surrounding him – he’d be lucky to get that $3.5M/WAR rate. Harden’s contract – 1 year, $7.5M – came in at
roughly 3M/WAR by CHONE, and that’s only projecting 132 innings for Harden. Based on this, Sheets could be looking at something closer to a contract worth $5M or $6M.

Sheets could get something in the 9 million dollar range, but that’s only after incentives are included. With the number of openings for expensive starting pitchers closing as clubs inch closer and closer to their maximum payrolls, Sheets will have to face the realities of the new market and settle for closer to half of what he’s looking for.