- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHOENIX -- Never mind the challenge Ben Sheets will face in his pursuit of 200 innings. His surgically repaired right flexor tendon will get its biggest workout from all the hand holding he'll be doing this summer.
When the Athletics spent $10 million on a one-year contract for Sheets, they were betting on a return to form by the pitcher who made four All-Star teams while with Milwaukee, struck out 264 batters at age 25 and averaged 225 innings during a three-year stretch with the Brewers.
And if Sheets isn't vintage Big Ben or Oakland fades from American League West contention by July, general manager Billy Beane will try to flip him at the trade deadline, and Sheets will swap his Kelly green, Fort Knox gold and wedding-gown white for a contending team's colors.
In the meantime, the gregarious, entertaining Sheets will be the voice of wisdom in the clubhouse, dugout, video room and airport terminals across America. Every young staff needs a resident sage, right?
Flash back to last spring, and it's the one thing Oakland's young pitchers were lacking. Lefties Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden and righties Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro arrived in Phoenix with lots of hype, lofty expectations and little understanding of the rigors of a 162-game season.
"We were all young enough and just dumb enough that we really didn't know what was going on,'' Braden said.
The role of a stabilizing influence was supposed to fall to two-time All-Star Justin Duchscherer. But when Duchscherer missed the entire season with an elbow injury and clinical depression, the A's experienced the pitfalls of excessive youth.
Oakland started a rookie pitcher in a franchise-record 116 games, and the rotation ranked 11th in the AL in ERA (4.76) and strikeouts (610) and 13th in innings pitched (888). Only Baltimore's starters logged a lighter workload.
For sure, the kids showed flashes. Anderson tossed a complete-game shutout at Fenway Park and carried a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Angels, and Cahill threw seven scoreless innings against Los Angeles and Texas late in the season. But with no veteran in the rotation, it was left to pitching coach Curt Young, catcher Kurt Suzuki and Braden (the rotation elder at 26) to provide guidance and perspective during the tough times.
"When you first break in, you go through so many ups, downs and bumps throughout the season,'' Suzuki said. "When you don't have that veteran presence to lean on and follow and see how he handles certain situations, it's difficult.
"The game speeds up here. It's so fast in the big leagues. I would go out to the mound when I'd see them racing a little bit, and I'd try to slow the pace down and get them back into that relaxed comfort zone where they could perform. As the season went on, they showed how talented and smart they were. They started making the adjustments themselves.''
The kids' pulses began racing anew in January. After the A's re-signed Duchscherer to a one-year contract heavy on incentives, Beane pulled off a hot stove shocker. The A's made Sheets the second-highest-paid player on the roster (behind Eric Chavez) even though Sheets hadn't appeared in a major league game since September 2008.
The signing was momentous enough that several A's remembered precisely where they were when they got the news. Manager Bob Geren was having a flat tire repaired when Beane called, and he had to step outside to escape the noise from his lug nuts being removed.
Braden was so excited, he tracked down Sheets' phone number and sent his new teammate a "Welcome to Oakland '' text message. To his delight, Sheets responded almost immediately.
"He told me, 'I want you to get your working boots on, because it's going to be a fun year,'" Braden said. "That was awesome to hear. Here's a four-time All-Star texting me back when he's got nothing invested yet. And he's ready to work. You hear that and you know you've got the right guy.''
With camp just under way, Braden has made it clear that he'll be hanging on Sheets' every word.
"By the end of the year, I'll have Dallas throwing right-handed,'' Sheets said.
The Oakland staff is an intriguing blend of personalities. Anderson is the businesslike coach's son from Oklahoma, Cahill the laid-back Californian. Gio Gonzalez is emotional, Mazzaro intense. And Braden has a touch of Bill "Spaceman'' Lee to him. He arrived at camp and regaled sportswriters with stories from his offseason trip to Amsterdam, which was highlighted by a visit to the always-entertaining medieval torture museum.
"It was the coldest winter in Europe in 35 years, and I was making snow angels in the middle of Dam Square,'' Braden said. "It was awesome.''
Now the clubhouse bouillabaisse includes Sheets, with his Louisiana good ol' boy charm and Brett Favre everyman quality. Sheets is funny, outgoing and the guy most likely to be overseeing the fantasy football draft if he's still around in August.
Mention his .076 career batting average, and Sheets will do a hilarious, self-deprecating riff on his futility at the plate. He is quick to point out that former Brewers manager Ned Yost once batted him eighth in the lineup.
"Bob [Geren] has already talked to me about DHing and pinch hitting in critical moments, but only with a real tough lefty on the mound,'' Sheets said. "Like CC Sabathia.''
Sheets the pitcher knows what it's like to be young and mentorless in the big leagues. Jamey Wright helped him get comfortable in the Milwaukee clubhouse, and he learned a lot from pitching coaches Dave Stewart and Mike Maddux. But Sheets remembers feeling a trace of envy when Kevin Millwood relayed how it felt to pitch in Atlanta and have access to the accrued knowledge of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
"He had Smoltz, a power pitcher, Glavine, a lefty, and Maddux, a location righty who could move the ball all over the place,'' Sheets said. "No matter what the question, he had a different type pitcher who could answer it.''
Veterans, by virtue of their experience, are more adept than rookies at anticipating turning points and spotting subtle cues. As Braden points out, a savvy pitcher can tell a lot from the way a hitter takes a pitch, much less swings at it. If Sheets throws his curveball on a 1-1 count, Braden wants to know why. If Sheets shakes off the catcher in a big spot, Braden will ask about that, too.
"We have an absolute proven All-Star in Sheets, and the same with Duchscherer,'' Braden said. "You're talking about two guys who have been through the wars and can give us some insight in a different way than we're used to getting. We have two beautiful minds to pick from now.''
Like Randy Johnson, Sheets would rather have the kids approach him for advice than cram it down their throats. He also is more interested in schooling them on pitch selection and the art of navigating a lineup than dispensing personal insights -- like his favorite restaurant in Seattle or his thoughts on the proper amount to tip the clubhouse attendants.
"You have to act like a big leaguer, obviously, but the important part for me is out there on the field,'' Sheets said. "You can act like a big leaguer all you want here [in the dugout]. If you can't do it on the field, it doesn't matter.''
Sheets is in a good place at age 31. His arm feels fine, he'll be working in a pitcher-friendly park this summer, and he has a chance to shoot for a bigger payday next winter with a healthy and productive season.
As a fringe benefit, school is officially in session. Even if Sheets is just passing through town, he has a chance to leave his young rotation-mates in Oakland with something to remember.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg