- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Gary Sheffield left Joker Marchant Stadium, the Detroit Tigers' spring training home, swiftly and quietly Tuesday morning, one home run short of 500 and now without a team. The Tigers released Sheffield, 40, in part because he hit .178 this spring but mostly to make their team more versatile.
"He was professional,'' Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. "He shook our hands and thanked us.''
Sheffield vowed to find another team, not just to get to 500 home runs, but because he still wants to play. And he wants to play the outfield, saying, "I'm still one of the most athletic guys on the team.''
As for releasing a guy who was one home run short of 500, Dombrowski said, "We wanted him to hit 500 for us. We thought he might do it last season. We had a special presentation prepared. We had a gift for him. And it was beautiful.''
By releasing Sheffield, the Tigers opened a spot at designated hitter for Marcus Thames, who is 32 years old and hit 25 home runs in only 316 at-bats in 2008.
"We know what kind of hitter Marcus is," Dombrowski said. "He's not going to hit .320. He's not going to get the same number of walks that Gary would get. He's a streaky hitter. But when he's good, he's really good.''
Also by releasing Sheffield, the Tigers now are able to use the DH in many ways for many players. If first baseman Miguel Cabrera needs a day off from the field, he can be the DH. So can left fielder Carlos Guillen or right fielder Magglio Ordonez.
The release of Sheffield, in the second year of a two-year deal worth $28 million, is another sign the team is going younger, going more athletic and emphasizing defense, like the Rays did last season when they went to the World Series. On Monday, the Tigers acquired outfielder Josh Anderson from Atlanta to help make them younger, faster and better defensively.
Dombrowski acknowledged that Sheffield "can still hit'' and said Sheffield's Tigers career "would have been better'' if he hadn't hurt his shoulder in a collision in 2007 with teammate Placido Polanco. But his skills at the plate and in the field have deteriorated the past two seasons to the point that he simply is no longer the devastating hitter he used to be. In 2008, he batted .225 with 19 home runs in 418 at-bats.
"Sheff was a great guy on this club, a great guy, but it doesn't come as a big surprise that he was released,'' one Tigers teammate said. "I'm really going to miss him, but I'm surprised that this didn't happen last year.''
It's likely too early to tell whether a team might be interested in Sheffield, but chances are, that team won't be a National League team. Chances are some American League team will sign him as a right-handed DH or as a guy who still can hit a home run coming off the bench. But if Sheffield doesn't play again, even if he doesn't get to 500 home runs, he has had a Hall of Fame career.
Sheffield has a career .292 average with a .394 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage; it's a short list of players in the .300-400-.500 club, and Sheffield isn't far from that. He made nine All-Star teams. He never won an MVP, but he had exactly as many MVP votes in his career as Rickey Henderson and more than, among others, Jimmie Foxx, Cal Ripken and Hank Greenberg. A friend who runs statistics for a living ran the numbers on the most productive players in baseball from 1974 to 2008, and here's the top five: Barry Bonds, Henderson, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell and Sheffield.
But Sheffield isn't thinking about 500 home runs or the Hall of Fame. He said this marked the first time he has ever not made a team. And from the way he spoke, he is determined to make some team in 2009.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback May 27. Click here to order a copy.