MILWAUKEE -- Former Brewers right-hander Ben Sheets returned to his Louisiana high school last week and saw his No. 15 uniform retired. Sheets intends to be wearing it again in 2010. He missed all of 2009 after undergoing surgery in February to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right arm, but a member of Sheets' camp said he is participating in a flat-ground throwing program and is planning to be "more than ready to go" when the 2010 season begins. If that is the case, Sheets could draw some serious action on this winter's free-agent market. But that wasn't the focus last Friday night, when Sheets returned to St. Amant High School in a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and became the school's first baseball player honored with a retired number.
"It's time," said Walter Lemons, the Gators' head baseball coach and whose tenure began in Sheets' freshman year. "I've been working on this for four or five years," Lemons said. "We finally got it done. He's well-deserving, and I wanted to make sure he was the first baseball number we retired. I wanted to make it special for him." St. Amant was a baseball powerhouse during Sheets' time there, winning three Louisiana state titles and advancing to the state semifinals when he was a senior. Sheets pitched only sparingly in his two years on the varsity squad, mostly in middle relief as a junior. "After his senior year, he kind of took off," Lemons said. "Things fell into place for him. He started throwing harder, and you see what he rose to. No one foresaw him having the career like he has. I don't think even he did." Assuming Sheets, a four-time National League All-Star, is healthy, he could be highly-coveted player on what appears to be a thin free-agent pitching market. Sheets nearly signed with the Rangers last winter before concerns about his elbow scuttled the deal, and is now open to offers from all 30 teams including the Brewers, despite his somewhat complicated exit from Milwaukee. Sheets, who debuted with the Brewers in 2001 and by 2008 was the player with the longest tenure with the club, 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, the medical prognosis was that with rest and exercise and rehab Sheets would recover. The team was so comfortable with that diagnosis that it extended a Dec. 2 offer of arbitration to Sheets, who was free agent-eligible 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 and started the All-Star Game for the National League. But Sheets declined, opting instead to enter the market. It proved to be a costly decision. MLB.com was the first to report that Sheets was headed for surgery and he has remained under the radar since then. A decision was reached in July or August that attempting a late-season return with a contender, a la Pedro Martinez with the Phillies, was too risky a proposition. Instead, Sheets focused his efforts on getting completely healthy for 2010. The Brewers say they would be interested, and the Rangers, with pitching coach Mike Maddux who worked with Sheets in Milwaukee, would be a logical suitor once again. Judging by Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's postseason comments about taking risks on bounce-back candidates, Boston can't be counted out, either. The Red Sox tried similar deals with John Smoltz and Brad Penny, and neither worked out in Boston. "Could we end up with another buy-low, high-upside, low-risk starting pitcher somewhere on the roster?" Epstein said. "Sure. And if it doesn't work out, we'll move on." For his part, Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said he had not spoken personally with Sheets' agent, Casey Close, since January -- when the sides were discussing who would pay for Sheets' surgery. General manager Doug Melvin last ran into Close in July. But Ash said earlier this month that other club officials had maintained periodic contact with Close to let him know the door remained open. "Ben is somebody who would have to be on anybody's list when it comes to improving your pitching staff," Ash said. "We're not up to date with his physical condition right now since he's no longer in our care, so that would have to be Step 1." Those discussions may not begin for weeks, or even months. Sheets has a home in Dallas but has been spending much of his time at home in Louisiana, and he delivered a pep talk to St. Amant's football players last week ahead of their game against a crosstown rival. Afterward, Sheets chatted with Lemons and other coaches late into the night. "I want the people in Wisconsin to know that he talked really highly of his time there," Lemons said. "Even if it turns out he doesn't go back to Milwaukee, it was all positive in that coaches' office. And we were really probing him." Sheets didn't offer many clues about where he wants to go. "From what I understood, he doesn't really know," Lemons said.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.