This is the Newberg Report I'd been dying to send for the past few weeks:
What do July 15, 2008 and April 6, 2009 have in common?
All of a sudden, a lot.
After hours of afternoon sports talk radio air devoted yesterday to Dan Reeves and barely a mention of Ben Sheets, it occurred to me that as parallel as the two stories appeared to be on the surface - a couple guys with local ties brought to the doorstep by the Cowboys and Rangers, with deals nearly done that would have brought an instant injection of integrity and leadership, only to be scuttled at the last minute - the big difference was that what happened with the football team was a big old bag of good grief, whereas with the baseball story there were a couple things to feel good about:
1. The Rangers proved, as they have done a number of times in recent years, that payroll budgets are subject to exceptions when the right opportunity is there. They got a deal done with Sheets. The deal didn't survive the physical, but that's a legitimate ace, the first number one Texas had agreed to terms with since Nolan Ryan, and the Rangers got the second year that they'd been negotiating to get. That in itself is encouraging.
2. The Rangers' medical team, headed by Team Physician Dr. Keith Meister and Medical Director Jamie Reed, did what you want them to do, and that is help the team dodge a bullet by stepping up and telling ownership and management that the deal they'd worked so hard for weeks to strike was a bad risk. The Yankees can outspend their mistakes (and there have been plenty), and so can the Red Sox. Other teams generally can't, Texas included, and whether the medical evaluation saved the Rangers $5 million or $10 million (according to multiple local reports this morning) or $20 million in guaranteed dollars, it's a significant amount of money that would have hamstrung the club to some extent. Good work by the medical team.
A few things:
1. No, Sheets and his agent Casey Close weren't perpetrating some sort of fraud on the Rangers, trying to land a big contract knowing that surgery was inevitable. If they knew he wasn't going to be able to answer the bell this spring, they would have accepted Milwaukee's December arbitration offer, which surely would have produced a 2009 salary in excess of the $11 million Sheets made in 2008. Sheets knew he would have to pass a physical to get a free agent deal. He clearly thought he could pass it.
2. Further evidence of the above is the fact that Milwaukee offered arbitration in the first place. If the Brewers (who obviously knew his health situation better than anyone else) believed Sheets was such a health risk that his 2009 season was in serious question, there's no chance they would have dangled the arbitration offer. What would have been worse than owing Sheets something like $15 million over two years? Owing him $12 million for one season, spent entirely on the disabled list.
(And if your baseball brain is taking the next step and thinking that if Milwaukee were to lose to Sheets in arbitration, the club could just release him and owe him only a sixth of his contract, a few problems there: (1) If the two sides were to settle in advance of a hearing, which typically happens, the base would have been fully guaranteed unless Sheets were to consent to a non-guaranteed deal - no chance; (2) the Players Association has successfully grieved past situations in which a club has released a player it lost to in arbitration; and (3) releasing an injured player in hopes of owing less than the full contracted amount is a losing position to take.)
3. Many of you emailed me yesterday afternoon suggesting that we hold off until after the June draft and try to sign Sheets then to one of those Jon Lieber contracts that I talked about in yesterday morning's report, so that we wouldn't forfeit this year's second-round pick. Smart enough in theory, but here's the problem: Let's say Sheets has surgery in the next few days, it goes well, and the prognosis is that he could be back on a big league mound in mid-August. What happens when the Yankees lose Andy Pettitte in May or the Red Sox lose A.J. Burnett in June, and decide to throw silly money at Sheets as a second-half reinforcement? If there's a multi-year Lieber deal to be made, and Sheets and the Rangers agree on the structure of it, don't mess around. Get it done.
4. Renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews is expected to perform the flexor tendon repair, which reportedly would have already taken place if there weren't insurance issues (regarding who will be responsible for the costs) holding it up. (So the Brewers weren't only stripped, at least for now, of a supplemental first-round pick and the Rangers' second-rounder when last week's deal fell through, they may also be on the hook for Sheet's surgical and rehab expenses.)
5. As far as how long after surgery it could be before Sheets is pitching again, I've seen estimates of as few as four months and as many as 10. This isn't Tommy John, which usually means 12-18 months. But realistically, he can't be counted on in 2009. But even those who believe Texas has a chance to compete this year will admit that the outlook is even better in 2010, when Sheets should be ready to go. Texas will be free of its commitments to Kevin Millwood (probably) and Vicente Padilla a year from now, and the thought of having a number one warrior like Sheets, back with his longtime pitching coach and leading a young, talented pitching staff, fires me up, even though 2009 is probably a lost year for him.
6. On that subject, it's too bad Sheets didn't have the procedure done once he was shut down late in September. Again, he obviously didn't think he would need surgery at all, but if he'd gone ahead with it after last pitching, it's conceivable that he'd have been ready to go in 2009, if not at the outset then sometime around mid-season.
7. But he didn't, and once the insurance issues are cleared up, Sheets will be operated on. And then there will be months and months of intense rehab work. Wouldn't it make sense for him to be able to stay home in Dallas and do his work in Arlington, not only a convenient arrangement logistically but one that would allow him access to the Rangers' medical staff and trainers and state-of-the-art facilities, with Mike Maddux around as a confidant (and overseer of his throwing program late in the rehab process) and Nolan Ryan, a warrior legend in his own right, around as well - and, as a team-centric side effect, any number of young Rangers pitchers around to see a major league ace work his tail off to be able to climb the hill again and help his teammates win big league baseball games?
The counter-argument, of course, is that Sheets will be positioned better a year from now to land the deal he wants, when he'll be healthier, baseball's economy might be better, the free agent starting pitcher class will be weaker, and more teams will be looking for a starter than there are now.
But if he wants to pitch here, at home and with Maddux and Ryan and for a team that was prepared to step up for him this winter when nobody else would, contract incentives can presumably go a long way toward covering some of those issues.
Do I surrender my second-round pick, which will sit at around number 60 overall, for a chance to have Ben Sheets rehab as a Texas Ranger in 2009? You bet.
The equipment trucks will pull away from Rangers Ballpark and head west for Surprise a few hours from now, and there won't be a Sheets number 15 jersey in tow. It's disappointing in one sense, a relief in another, but the fact that there was a time last week when everyone in the room agreed that the player was going to be a Texas Ranger for two years, at mutually agreeable terms, gives me some hope that this story may not be completely finished.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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