Friday March 19th, 2010

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- On Saturday, A's starter Ben Sheets will make his fourth start of spring training, where he will try very hard to prove his first three starts are not cause for alarm. In his most recent outing last Monday, Sheets faced 10 Cincinnati Reds batters and allowed all 10 to score. The Goodyear Ballpark scoreboard posted a zero in the Reds' first-inning line score, but only because it's not equipped for double digits.

What began as a perfectly clear 74-degree day ended with a very imperfect 10 for Sheets and a cloudy forecast for both the A's and their expensive new ace. After missing all of last season with a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow, Sheets signed a one-year, $10 million deal with Oakland in the offseason, becoming just the second player ever to receive an eight-figure contract from the famously frugal franchise. He's being paid like an ace, and that's what Oakland is banking on getting: a stabilizing force and a leader to provide a strong example for the 26-and-under crowd of Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazarro.

Thus far, however, the results have been disastrous. Sheets has a spring ERA of 31.15 and his Monday start was so awful and his exit so abrupt that he retreated to the bullpen to throw two simulated innings, needing more work than the 35 pitches he lasted on the game field.

"People have had bad springs before, but this one's been taken to a whole new level," said Sheets afterward. "When you can't even get out of the first inning, it's ridiculous. Not getting any outs is embarrassing."

There was some reason for optimism. Sheets raved about how good his surgically-repaired arm felt against the Reds and that his fastball velocity hovered around 91 miles per hour, a number that will likely tick up slightly as spring training continues. His catcher, Kurt Suzuki, said that Sheets "had his best stuff this spring." It's a long road to recovery, and Oakland seems confident that Sheets will perform better once the season starts.

"This guy's an All-Star," A's manager Bob Geren said. "This guy's a competitor and a true ace."

The question this season is whether Sheets will be the A's ace all year long. With Oakland not likely to contend for a playoff berth, there is already speculation that Sheets could get traded midsummer, making the first half of the season a tryout for him and an investment in young players by the A's. It's a way for general manager Billy Beane to spend money on more proven prospects than he could acquire in the draft. But Sheets is a risky stock whose value is now very low.

Sitting in front of his locker the day before in the Phoenix Municipal Stadium clubhouse, Sheets predictably declined to comment on such speculation that he'd certainly be traded by the deadline ("I don't read what anyone says") and stressed that his only focus right now is pitching and returning to his 2008 All-Star form, when he went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA for the Brewers, with whom he had spent his entire career before signing with the A's.

Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks dined with Sheets recently and recognized that the longtime Brewers ace -- who won 86 games and made four All-Star teams in eight seasons -- is "the same fiery guy who left here." Weeks receives additional perspective from his bother, Jemile, an A's second baseman who was in major-league camp until last Sunday. The brothers Weeks confirm that Sheets is a gregarious and energetic guy, who enters the clubhouse and doesn't stop talking and being positive, a perspective shared by former Brewers rotation-mate Dave Bush.

"He spent a lot of years here as the face of the organization and the pitching staff," Bush said. "That's not an easy thing to handle, but he handled it pretty well. Even as we got better, he still carried that through. He's always been a stand-up guy, very professional. He handles the good and bad the same way."

The National League certainly remembers Sheets as ace. New White Sox left fielder Juan Pierre, previously an NL-lifer, is 10-for-30 against Sheets in his career.

"He was just a bulldog on the mound," Pierre said. "You have to beat him to knock him out of the game. He's got two plus-plus pitches with the fastball and the curve, then he started mixing in the changeup, and could work both sides of the plate with his fastball. When healthy, he was one of the best in the league."

Of course, that phrase "when healthy" is the key qualifier. Sheets reiterated several times that he felt good and his arm felt good, so there should soon be improvement in his results. Concluding his postgame wrap last Monday, his voice rose in defiant confidence.

"I'm going to get it together," he said. "One thing I've never been worried about is that if I'm healthy, I'm going to get it together. I'm a big believer in myself. I believe I can pitch. If I [feel] like I did today, I'm only going to get better."

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