Sheets ready to lead A's young rotation
Geren hands newly signed righty Opening Day duties
OAKLAND -- The youthful band of brothers that is the A's starting rotation has officially found its front man.This newly acquired rock star brings with him an All-Star presence and just the right pinch of confidence, not to mention an innate fire that is sure to bring fans to their feet.
Add in the immediate likable Southern drawl to go along with a scruffy yet peaceful look, and it's easy to assume those same fans will quickly warm up to this delightful chap before The Show even starts.Cue in said star Ben Sheets, who Billy Beane and Co. officially welcomed into the Oakland fold on Tuesday morning with a one-year contract worth $10 million plus incentives. The right-handed pitcher, who was brought in as a free agent after missing all of 2009 because of elbow surgery, quickly assured media at an introductory press conference that he is more than ready to be the head honcho of an already strong but growing staff. And the A's, claimed manager Bob Geren, are more than ready for him to take on that role. "It's a real pleasure to add him to our roster," said Geren, who wasted no time in naming Sheets his Opening Day starter. "If you think about what he's done in the past and look at how rejuvenated he feels to get back on the mound, it's a big plus for us. "Quite frankly, we had a lot of young guys last year who were trying to learn on the job and are very talented, but they didn't necessarily have that fire and confidence because they were still learning that craft. But when you add a guy like Ben into the mix, you know it's going to affect your team in a lot of ways besides pitching." That same mindset is exactly what Beane envisioned long before the 31-year-old Sheets even threw a pitching session in front of several scouts and more than 15 team officials -- including those from Oakland -- last week at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. The A's general manager said he met with Sheets' agent and close friend, Casey Close, at the Winter Meetings in early December and kept in touch on a steady basis. "I told Casey if we liked what we saw," Beane said, "we planned on being aggressive. "When he threw, we were pretty much ready with an offer on the phone within an hour. His velocity that day was pretty much the same velocity he had during the seasons of '07 and '08, and I'm not sure there are too many guys on our Major League staff who could go out and hit 90 and 92 in January, so we were impressed and got right on him." Surely, though, most assumed the small-market A's were dealing with some heavy competition -- including the Mets and Rangers, among others, Sheets confirmed. The fact is they were, but that didn't stop Beane from getting his marquee man. "I was a little concerned when [Joel] Pineiro signed [with the Angels] on Thursday," he admitted. "I was hoping he would stay out there just to divert some of the attention from Ben. We were already starting to gain some momentum, and we made sure we kept that momentum because once Pineiro was off the board, I was sure there would be some people coming for Ben. I didn't really pay attention, though, because by then they knew we were ready to make a deal. "We weren't too focused on the competition. We were either going to get him with what we had or we weren't." The lone piece to the puzzle at that point was selling Sheets on joining a rebuilding A's team, which both Beane and his new pitcher believe was the easy part. "I had my eye on the AL West last year, and again this year," Sheets said. "The first time I talked to [Beane] he really sold me on the whole idea of this team, and when I really dived into the information on this team, I really liked what I saw. "I told Casey, 'I like where this A's team is going, and I like how confident they are in their organization.' This is where it worked out. This is where God wanted me to be, and this is where I wanted to be, and I'm glad they've welcomed me with open arms." Still, that didn't stop Sheets from considering other teams like Texas, which signed the All-Star to a two-year deal just before Spring Training last year until the contract was voided when it was determined during his physical that surgery was required to repair a torn flexor in his right elbow. The Rangers were still very interested in Sheets after his session last week, but the team knew affordability would present a road block. "Oakland made him an offer we were not going to make," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said. "I got a chance to know Ben last year, and I'm glad he's getting back to health. I would have preferred he sign in one of the other five divisions. I hope his turns in the rotation miss us." It's not hard to see why after assessing Sheets' first eight seasons in the Major Leagues, which include an 86-83 record with a 3.72 ERA. The four-time Milwaukee All-Star tallied double-digit wins seven times while recording an ERA under 4.00 in each of his past five seasons, and he went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 31 starts for the Brewers during the 2008 season. "Ben's been one of the top pitchers in the game, and when you have that opportunity to sign a guy like him -- regardless of where you are as a club -- you're going to take a chance," Beane said. "It's really simple. We've got a long way to go considering last year's finish, but this was probably the best step we could take in narrowing that gap." Just as important for the team was finding the right guy to act as another veteran presence on an otherwise young A's rotation that now boasts plenty of depth. Sheets joins fellow veteran Justin Duchscherer along with Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro in the mix. "Our rotation is just getting better and better it seems," Anderson said. "It's great having these veterans in there knowing that they can help us younger guys with bits of information here and there. You can pick their brain a little bit, and hopefully they can help us any way they can." At the same time, Sheets expects much of the same from the junior crew. "They've got some good arms in here, and they can only develop further," he said. "I think I can come in and help out and just talk about some of the things I've been through. Vice versa, these guys are going to help me because they've been in this league before." However, Geren doesn't see Sheets having any trouble getting acquainted with his newly formed league rivals. "He's already asking me for scouting reports on the Angels and Mariners, trying to learn the AL West right now," the skipper said. "I printed him stuff last night, and he also wanted to know about scouting and how we prepare for game plans. These are questions you don't normally hear. Each veteran guy brings in a different thing. With him, I think it's the competitive nature and the work ethic that's really going to rub off." Geren wasn't just busy at the printers the night before the A's announced the signing, though. He also played what Sheets called a "good old-fashioned game of catch" at a park in nearby Danville, where the manager resides. "He wanted to stay on his throwing program, so he and Bob threw in the rain after dinner under the lights," Beane said. Added Geren: "He said he wanted to throw up to 200 feet, so I had to call in a replacement. I had my son meet me at the park in five minutes, and so they threw long toss for a while." Nevertheless, the quick session further left the A's even more confident entering Tuesday knowing that Sheets' health will not be a question mark dancing around Arizona in just three short weeks at Spring Training. "The elbow's doing great," said Sheets, who rehabbed in Dallas for almost six months last year before finishing his program at home in Louisiana. "I think the biggest thing that I'm going to take out of this year is that my whole body feels a lot better. Baseball's such a grind that you kind of forget how good you can feel, and missing this whole year, I feel renewed for the game. I'm real antsy to get back out there because I miss the competitive part. "I think I'm 100 percent physically ready to go. To get ready for the season is a bit different. I have to build up my pitches ... but I feel like I'm going to be right where I need to be when the season opens. I hope, at the end of the day, they end up getting the better end of this deal. I feel like I've got some good years left." Where Sheets will be at the end of the year is anybody's guess, but he'll be the first to say signing a multiyear deal never made sense despite multiple reports linking him to a two-year contract recently. "That's what makes sense for everybody," he said. "I'm realistic. How are you going to get a multiyear deal after a year of nothing? You have to prove you're healthy. This was the right thing. "I'm glad to get this process over with, and I'm going to take my normal process into Spring Training and be one of the guys. I'm excited to get back into routine. There's one place I always feel comfortable, and that's on the mound, so I'm pretty sure when I get up there that all my instincts and what I've learned in the past will come back. I'm not that nervous about getting back out there, I'm just ready to go." More than ready for the change are his sons, 2-year-old Miller and 7-year-old Seaver -- the latter who told dad he missed hanging out in the clubhouse last year. Sheets, though, said the time spent at home with his family made his injury a blessing in disguise of sorts. "It was strange having to watch the baseball season from home, but it was rewarding in the fact that I'm a dad also," he said. "I'm a dad first and foremost. I got the chance to see my kids on an everyday basis, got to enjoy Fourth of July with them, got to take them to a ballgame." One of those games in Texas happened to be against the A's and outfielder Ryan Sweeney, who quickly caught Sheets attention thanks to his aggressive, all-out style of play -- not to mention a certain number on the back of his jersey. "I'm going home and doing some bicep curls and some bench pressing, and I'm going to take down Ryan Sweeney," joked Sheets, who has always worn Sweeney's No. 15. "I think we're going to work out a deal, which I'd like a lot." Either way, Sheets is simply happy to be back on the field, and even more thrilled to share it with a team like the A's. "I wanted to go geographically to one spot last year, and then I realized I just love the game, and it doesn't matter where you play," he said. "We don't get to play this game forever. You want to be somewhere where people want you, and you want to help them out the best you can."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.