By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Aug 27, 2006 at 5:15 AM
Of the countless expletives and vulgarities hurled at the Milwaukee Brewers this season, a pretty good number of those were directed toward Ben Sheets.

The Brewers right-hander came under fire for his injury-shortened 2005 campaign, his injury-plagued 2006 campaign, and for the fact that he has never posted more than 12 victories in a season.

Those factors -- especially the injuries -- have led many to second-guess the four-year, $38.5 million dollar contract Sheets signed before last season.

A lot have fans have called Sheets a waste of money and sports radio know-it-alls have anointed Chris Capuano as the team’s ace. It’s more than just funny when these people suggest that Sheets should never have been signed to the deal.

There are two key factors to keep in mind here:

  • Prior to last season, Sheets had only been on the disabled list one time in his career; a 15-day trip in 2001 with shoulder tendinits. After starting 25 games his rookie year, he made 34 starts in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Injuries happen in baseball, but Sheets has been struck with some bad luck in the last year-and-a-half.
  • No matter how good a pitcher is, he can only control of a ballgame. The universally-respected standard of three earned runs a game or less has come to represent the mark of an effective starting pitcher. While one bad outing can throw an ERA off for weeks, that and walk-to-strikeout ratios, walks and hits / innings pitched are much more accurate barometers of a pitcher’s abilities. In all of those categories, Sheets is considered well above average. While he’s pretty bad with the bat, few pitchers aren’t. Besides, it’s not his job to hit .300 with 25 home runs.
Since returning from the DL in July, Sheets has looked to be back to his old self. His velocity has been up in the mid-90s, and he’s been working deep into games.

All these people who have railed on Doug Melvin and Mark Attanasio are no better than hypocrites. These are the same people who were crowing for the team to resign Carlos Lee, and accused management of being penny-pinching losers when a deal didn’t get completed.

So, what then, would have happened if the team didn’t sign Sheets? How would the organization have been viewed by fans if Sheets were allowed to leave via free agency, or was traded to a contender?

There was some banter about signing Derrick Turnbow to a long-term deal last season and look at what’s happened. These same people who demand that the team ante up are the first ones to throw a fit when things don’t work out.

Since returning from the disabled list Sheets has been fairly consistent; posting a 3-2 record with a 4.13 ERA. Hardly earth-shattering numbers until you look at the fact that Sheets has issued just five walks coupled with 37 strikeouts in 37 innings of work.

After a recent hiccup against Houston, when Sheets’ velocity dipped into the high 80s, he rebounded with seven scoreless innings in a 7-1 victory over Colorado last week. Going back to the basics with his fastball and curveball, Sheets was throwing in the low-to-mid 90s.

Mentally and physically, Sheets is 100% recovered from the injury. At least so he and manager Ned Yost have said. And while he may be fine, it does take some time to get back into a rhythm. Sheets is starting to get into that groove, and if the bats heat up, the last month of the season could be interesting.

Say what you want about Sheets. He’s the ace of the Brewers pitching staff. His fellow pitchers will tell you that he has the best stuff on the team. Besides that, what other options were out there?

Look at all the names that failed to even tread water in Sheets’ absence: Dana Eveland, Ben Hendrickson, and Jorge De La Rosa were abysmal when given the chance. Carlos Villanueva and Zach Jackson showed they still have some work to do.

The free agent market isn’t much better. Until the Brewers start winning consistently, they’ll have to overspend on any free agent -- something that Attanasio and Melvin aren’t willing to do.

As the offense improves and the defense matures, Sheets will continue to look better and the victories will become with greater frequency. In the meantime, to call a guy’s career a waste because he signed a big contract and got hurt is beyond ignorant. Ben Sheets isn’t Teddy Higuera. He’s not Ben McDonald, either.

Baseball, as a whole, is a gamble. You pay for what you want, not for what you actually get. Sometimes – especially with young, home-grown talent – you have a better idea of what you’re going to get.

With Sheets, the Brewers think they’ve got a guy that will carry them for a long time.