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MILWAUKEE -- Finally, an answer to one of this winter's most puzzling questions: Why is the National League's All-Star Game starting pitcher still unemployed?
The answer is that free agent right-hander Ben Sheets intends to undergo surgery to repair the torn flexor tendon in his elbow, and his former employers may be asked to pick up the tab. Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said on Thursday morning that the team has been in discussions this week with Sheets' agent and league officials about who would pay for such a procedure.
"We're working our way through all of the details and we don't know the answer yet," Ash said. "Major League Baseball has regulations related to workers' comp and there are procedures and protocols that have to be respected. We're working our way through those so I can't give you much insight other than that."
Sheets' agent, Casey Close, did not return a telephone message left at his office on Thursday. He did speak to SI.com later in the day and confirmed that Sheets plans to undergo surgery with hope of pitching during the second half of the 2009 season.
That marked a dramatic shift from just one week ago. The Texas Rangers and Sheets reached an agreement on a two-year contract late last week and only a physical stood in the way of the deal being completed. But everything changed once it was determined that Sheets might require surgery.
The Rangers could still pursue Sheets, who turns 31 in July, with a deal that would allow him to do his rehabilitation work with them in hopes that he would eventually pitch at a high level again. But that doesn't appear likely.
"We've maintained contact but I'm not optimistic at this point," general manager Jon Daniels said Thursday morning.
Daniels declined to discuss Sheets' physical and health situations.
While the matter of who pays for Sheets' surgery remained up for debate on Thursday, there is no doubt that he was injured while a Brewers employee. Sheets in fact worked much of the second half of the 2008 season with elbow pain and only revealed the torn flexor tendon in October, when he was left off Milwaukee's postseason roster.
At the time, according to Ash, the medical prognosis was that, "with rest and exercise and rehab, he should be fine."
Asked if there was any talk of surgery at that time, Ash replied simply, "None."
The team was so comfortable with that diagnosis that it extended a Dec. 2 offer of arbitration to Sheets, who is a free agent for the first time in his career. Had Sheets accepted that offer, he would have been considered a signed player for 2009 at a salary to be determined, almost certainly higher than the $11 million he earned in 2008, when he finished 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 31 starts.
The Brewers had dispatched assistant athletic trainer Dan Wright to Louisiana to examine Sheets and that visit did not reveal any red flags. That visit occurred before Dec. 8, when Sheets formally declined the team's arbitration offer and entered the free agent market for the first time in his career. The Brewers could argue that Sheets re-aggravated his injury well after he became a free agent.
While Sheets rehabbed, Close was seeking a multi-year contract for his client for significant guaranteed dollars. The Yankees showed some interest before they signed A.J. Burnett and then re-signed Andy Pettitte, and the Rangers emerged thereafter as Sheets' most serious suitors.
The Brewers, who made Sheets their first-round Draft pick in 1999, remained on the sidelines, content to reap Draft compensation for Sheets, a Type A free agent, when he signed with another club. Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin did contact Close in early January, after John Smoltz and Brad Penny signed incentive-rich, one-year contracts with the Red Sox, to inquire whether Sheets would consider a similar deal. That offer was spurned.
Now it appears the Brewers will not get any compensation for Sheets (the Draft begins June 9, and if Sheets remains unsigned at that time, the Brewers get nothing), who has been dogged by injuries throughout an otherwise stellar Major League career. He has appeared on four NL All-Star teams but has also been on the disabled list six times, mostly for shoulder issues.
Many of his recent woes have been tied to an injury he suffered in August 2005, when Sheets tore the latissimus dorsi muscle in his upper back, near his right shoulder. He did not require surgery to repair the muscle but went on the disabled list twice in 2006 for shoulder issues that Sheets and the Brewers agreed were likely related to the manner in which the "lat" muscle healed.
The irony is that Sheets was on his way to an injury-free 2008 season when his elbow woes began. He first mentioned elbow pain to reporters on Sept. 17, when he exited a crucial start at Wrigley Field after two innings. He tried to pitch once more, on Sept. 27, but was ineffective in 2 1/3 innings against the Cubs. After that game, likely his last in a Brewers uniform, Sheets declared, "That's all I have. I've got a broke arm."
Now the question is who will pay to fix that arm? Reached by telephone, Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, would not comment for this story.
Ash said he was not sure when the issue would be settled.
"When you're dealing with multiple parties, it always takes a little longer than you hoped," Ash said. "We're working our way through it."