Between The Sheets: Brewers Must Make Tough Decisions About Their Ace

Peter BukowskiSenior Analyst IJuly 2, 2008

Imagine stepping into the batter's box, a 24 year old rookie having been in the big leagues less than two weeks. A beautiful night in Atlanta, it is the top of the fourth inning at Turner Field and you're down 4-0 already. It seems as though no one on your roster full of big league veterans has any clue what the pitcher is doing as he baffles hitter after hitter. But he's a righty and you're a lefty and he only throws two pitches right? Fastball, curveball, you can handle it.

You step into the box thinking you're prepared. The pitcher kicks his leg and delivers with violent arm motion. You're taking. Curveball at 81 drops onto the outside corner. Before you can think about what may be coming next, the pitcher is ready and sends you a 94 mph fastball up and in. You can barely see it, it might as well be 194.
Luckily you foul it out of play with a wild swing.
Just as quickly as before, he's ready again busting you up and in with a fastball just above the letters and just off the inside corner straight as string. 1-2 now and you're expecting nothing even close to the plate on the next pitch.
As the pitcher kicks and delivers, you read fastball out of his hand, almost identical to the one he just missed with. Only this time, the ball drops, your knees buckle, and without even hearing the umpire say a word you take your walk back to the dug out. 
Left Fielder Brandon Jones knows what I am talking about and so do the rest of the Atlanta Braves. Last Monday, Milwaukee Brewer's ace Ben Sheets toed the rubber in Atlanta and tossed a complete game gem allowing just four hits and one earned run. Even that run scored on a double play ground out. After the game, Braves hitters admitted they were lucky to get that one run.
"He was dominating," said Kelly Johnson, who had two of Atlanta's four hits. "We were lucky to put the ball in play. He was in complete control."
All-star catcher Brian McCann echoed those sentiments. "If you commit to the curveball that looks like his fastball, you're not going to touch it," McCann said after an 0-3 night with a strike out.
This sight was all too familiar to the Atlanta Braves who struck out 18 times against the Brewers top hurler at Miller Park May 16, 2004. It was a sight that Brewer's fans have come to expect from Bennie who, before a poor outing earlier this week, was 5-0 with a 1.92 ERA in his last 7 starts.
He was the only starting pitcher who had won a game it seemed for the Brewers early on, and at 9-2 with a 2.83 ERA, a NL high 3 complete games, and a 1.07 WHIP, Sheeter is squarely in the Cy Young conversation.
Unfortunately, he is also apparently calling off contract conversations with the Brewers. The Baton Rouge-born pitcher can become a free agent after this season and balked at earlier contract offers from Doug Melvin and the Brewer's organization. The Brewers sit at  45-38, just 4.5 games out of first as the Cubs and Cardinals appear to be leveling off.
With a roster loaded with talent, Milwaukee could be poised to make a playoff run. It remains clear however, in order to do so, they need number 15 throwing that power curve ball and precise fastball to do it.
A Johan Santana type $100+ million dollar contract would be out of the question for small market Milwaukee and Sheets' history of injury means the Brewers could be wary of inheriting a Barry Zito-like problem.
Now in his eighth season with the Crew, the gold-medal winning pitcher has started 30 or more games just three times and never won more than 12. Since 2005 when he was limited by a torn muscle in his shoulder, Sheets started 22, 17, and 24 games. Over that time he is 28-21 with a 3.66 ERA. That means when Sheets has been on the bump for the Brewers, he has been stellar.  
Recent injuries have the Brewers worried about investing in their ace.
The biggest problem though is the Brewers are winning. If they were in the cellar, this would be a no-brainer and Sheets may already be wearing a Yankees cap. 
Owner Mark Attansio has stated he wants to win now and with a roster full of potential and production, the big league roster is set, and the farm system is flush with outstanding position players.
In fact, Milwaukee's farm system has been the envy of the major leagues producing players like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, and Yovani Gallardo among numerous others. Matt LaPorta, Matt Gammel, and Alcides Escobar represent a whole new crop of talented minor-leaguers just waiting their turn.
The farm system though, conspicuously lacks big league ready pitching for the foreseeable future. 
Even with Ben Sheets, the loss of a future ace (the aforementioned Gallardo), means the Brewers are in the market for a starting pitcher for a playoff run. If you read ESPN, you've heard the Brewers are the front-runners to land Cleveland's reigning Cy Young champ C.C. Sebathia.
Then the Brewers would have TWO pitchers looking for monster deals. The homer-sports radio hosts like to say bringing in a pitcher of Sebathia's caliber would not only give the Brewers two legitimate #1 pitchers, but it would convince Sheets to stay in Milwaukee.
After all his son's name is Miller (After former Brewer's catcher Damien Miller, not Miller Park or Brewing Company).
With Sheets looking to test free agency equipped with Scott Boras by his side, the Brewers will have to hope Ben comes back to Milwaukee much like former Boras clinet Alex Rodriguez did with the Yankess after opting out of his mega deal in search of greener patures. They're hoping eight seasons was long enough to fall for the city of Milwaukee, the patient and supportive fanbase, and most importantly, a team that looks poised for greatness.
Take a step into the home locker room at Miller Park after the game you'll see Ben's two sons, Seaver and Miller, playing in the Brewer's clubhouse whether it's with Corey Hart's young sons, or just playing whiffle ball in between Milwaukee sports-media members.
Sheets has been in Milwaukee his entire career and has endured his fair share of losing seasons.
Now the Brewers have an exciting young team, a fan base at an all-time high (attendance will break 3 million fans, highest in franchise history), and a chance to compete in the most competitive division in the NL a season after front-running in that division most of the season.  
As a Brewer's fan you can't hope for an injury to your team's best pitcher in hopes of retaining him after this year; your team is in serious contention in the Central. As an administration you have to hope your teams continues to succeed. But with his complete game 4 hitters and double digit strike-out performances, Sheets just adds zeroes to his value this coming off-season.
If owner Mark Attanasio is serious about keeping his promise to the fans about winning, he has to make every effort to sign his team's ace even if they overpay to do it. If you're a Brewer's fan cheer for Ian Kennedy and Phillip Hughes to get their acts together so the Yankees don't feel like making Sheets a gazillionaire in pin stripes.
Pray that Curt Schilling finds the fountain of youth. Hope that Ben believes in this coaching staff, this young team, and the future of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Otherwise, the Brewers will be down an ace, a building block, and a realistic chance at a pennant.
Brewers brass will have to risk further injury to Sheets for fear of injury with their fan-base and their income source.