04/07/09 10:00 AM ET
Injuries spoil Sheffield's time as Tiger
Slugger unable to produce after outfield collision hurt shoulder
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Ask Dombrowski if Gary Sheffield is the greatest player from his teams over his three decades in baseball, and he has to think long and hard for competitors. The few he can mention in the same category -- Larry Walker, Randy Johnson, Carlton Fisk, who came up during Dombrowski's days in the White Sox front office -- are all in an exclusive category.
"If he's not [the best], he's one of the first couple," said Dombrowski, who won a World Series title with Sheffield in Florida in 1997.
For a brief period of time, Detroit saw that greatness from Sheffield, mainly during his first half in 2007.
Unfortunately, his Tiger tenure will be remembered for the injuries that marred the season and a half that followed, leaving him just shy of 500 home runs, and Detroit further away from the World Series title it hoped to capture with him in the lineup.
Sheffield came to Detroit with the unparalleled ability to create headlines, both with his bat and with his interviews. He ended up having to spend too much time talking about his shoulder. It's the risk a team takes when it brings in a player in his late 30s, even a prominent one, and the Tigers paid for it.
Detroit had barely calmed down from the Tigers' run to the World Series in 2006 when, two weeks after the final game, Dombrowski made the first big move of the offseason by acquiring Sheffield for three pitching prospects. It was the rare deal in which the Yankees were sending away a proven player for untested talent, but their rocky relationship was due for a close.
With Sheffield, Detroit finally had the feared slugger it lacked in the middle of its lineup. He had missed much of 2006 with wrist surgery, but had recovered, just as he recovered from a miserable opening month with the Tigers to hit .321 with 10 home runs in May '07. He had a .301 average with 22 homers, 63 RBIs and 56 walks in 89 games entering July 20, when a freak collision with second baseman Placido Polanco in shallow right field knocked Sheffield around and injured his right shoulder.
Sheffield played just 44 of the Detroit's final 69 games after the collision, batting .189 with three home runs and 12 RBIs.
"We were in first place when he got hurt in 2007," Dombrowski said, "and it affected our club a great deal. He was playing very well and swinging the bat. He got hurt at a tough time. And it's nobody fault, it just happened."
But the statistics were merely the start of the damage. As it turned out, Sheffield had tried to play through a torn labrum, which needed offseason surgery. He felt good during Spring Training in 2008, but that feeling only lasted into April. This time, it was a torn tendon in his left ring finger. A couple of weeks later, he had cortisone shots in both shoulders to deal with soreness. A stint in left field, which he asked for to help him get his timing back, lasted less than two weeks before his shoulder hurt again.
A strained oblique muscle in late May finally landed Sheffield on the disabled list. It didn't show until the final two months of the season, but the rest, combined with a workout routine designed to strengthen his shoulder, finally resulted in a healthy Sheffield. The results -- 11 home runs over 45 games -- provided a glimpse of what a healthy Sheffield can do. A full offseason workout plan that followed, his first healthy winter in years, added to the hope. The power surge brought Sheffield to 499 career homers, but his most important feat was passing his friend Fred McGriff at 493.
In the end, those healthy stints were the bookends for what was otherwise an injury-plagued Tigers tenure. There were moments -- no one will forget when Daniel Cabrera, then with the Orioles, tried to brush him back one pitch, then was taken deep the next -- but not the end results.
"I have no question it would have gone well and been very successful if he didn't have that injury," Dombrowski said.
"It's a shame. ... When we made the deal, you're not anticipating those types of things to happen. They do happen, but it's a situation where I think we never really had a good chance to have the full feel of his abilities because of the injury."
The cost to the Tigers won't be measured in prospects. None of the three Minor League pitchers they gave up has pitched in the big leagues. They remain in the Yankees farm system, and Humberto Sanchez has battled injury woes of his own. The price tag to Detroit came in the three years and $39 million paid out to Sheffield from 2007 through this year. The last $13.6 million will be paid to watch him play back in New York, this time for the Mets.
The Tigers, meanwhile, still haven't had a player hit their 500th career home run in their uniform. They still have a gift ready for whenever Sheffield hits the milestone homer. Now, however, it'll have to be delivered somewhere else.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.