What follows in an excerpt from the first edition of the Brewsletter, a Milwaukee Brewers newsletter that takes a deeper look into Brewers topics of the present and past. To buy the 19-page Brewsletter No. 1 click this button.
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Russ Bove spent 11 years scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers. He arrived in 1993, the first of 12 consecutive losing seasons for the Brewers. With high draft picks year-in and year-out it was up to scouts like Bove to make sure something came of them.
But, as 12 years of losing suggests, there were busts aplenty. According to Baseball America, these were Milwaukee’s top prospects of the 1990s:
1990 Greg Vaughn, of
1991 Chris George, rhp
1992 Tyrone Hill, lhp
1993 Tyrone Hill, lhp
1994 Jeff D’Amico, rhp
1995 Antone Williamson, 3b
1996 Jeff D’Amico, rhp
1997 Todd Dunn, of
1998 Valerio De Los Santos, lhp
1999 Ron Belliard, 2b
Tyrone Hill was a pre-Bove selection, a left-handed hurler the Brewers popped with the 15th pick of the 1991 draft. Hill was promising early on, but injuries stopped his career before it could get started. He never progressed past High-A. Jeff D’Amico was similarly injury riddled. He was excellent in 2000, but injuries in subsequent seasons left him a fifth starter at best.
Antone Williamson played 24 major league games. Todd Dunn played 50. Only Ron Belliard didn’t bust – he was an average big leaguer for five years as a Brewer – but his presence atop Milwaukee’s prospect list effectively sums up the situation down on the farm in the millennium’s final year.
Milwaukee had the 10th pick in the 1999 draft – the Brewers of the late 90s were merely bad, not atrocious like the clubs of the early 2000s. The 1998 squad finished at a gentleman’s 74-88. Without much at the farm’s top levels, the Brewers desperately needed to hit at 10.
On April 10th, 1999, Russ Bove headed down to Louisiana to scout a right-handed starting pitcher. From his report:
“Solid, thick body. Powerful lower half. Good athlete. Fastball ranges from 91-93 MPH with heavy boring life. Throws easy. Quick arm. Command of sharp, downer curveball. Good motion on changeup. Keeps ball down. Command of all three pitches. Focused. Good fielder. Outstanding mound presence.”
And the coup de grace:
“No brainer if available at No. 10.”
When Bove wrote “No brainer if available at No. 10,” one has to imagine he didn’t think Sheets would be there. Would the other nine teams in front of the Brewers pass on such an obvious talent? Bove rated all of Sheets’s pitches as average or better already in 1999, with room to grow into ace-level stuff.
Sheets wasn’t going to supplant Josh Hamilton, the consensus No. 1 for the Devil Rays. He wasn’t going to supplant Josh Beckett, the obvious No. 2 pick for the Marlins. Then Sheets lasted through the top-five. Eric Munson, No. 3, played 361 games under replacement-level for Detroit. Corey Myers and B.J. Garbe, a pair of high school position players, never made the majors.
The next four clubs all took pitchers. The Expos picked Josh Girdley; he never reached the majors. Kyle Snyder, the Royals’ pick, threw 93 games of irrelevant relief. Bobby Bradley, the Pirates’ selection, never reached the majors. Finally, the Athletics popped Barry Zito right in front of the Brewers. Although Zito went on to win a Cy Young with Oakland, Bove must have been ecstatic—after all, Bove labeled the lefty a third starter, worthy of an early draft pick, but not on the level of Sheets. And so the Brewers popped Bove’s man at No. 10
Ben Sheets was indisputably the most important Brewer of the early 2000s. He was the only pitcher drafted in the 1990s to last in Milwaukee through the club’s Wild Card run in 2008. (Bill Hall was the only position player, and his career in Milwaukee defined flash in the pan.)
Certainly, the dearth of talent on those early-2000s Brewers amplified his rise to stardom. Milwaukee was aching for any ray of hope. Geoff Jenkins, a solid player but not the impact player hoped for as the number nine overall pick in 1995, plateaued as a hacker without the power to differentiate himself from other steroid era sluggers.Jeromy Burnitz was already 31 years old by 2000. The club had no short-term or long-term solutions in the middle infield. The rotation was even worse – Jeff D’Amico was the only Brewer to post an ERA better than the league average in 1999 or 2000, and we all know how that turned out.
No, Sheets was not going to turn the 2001 Milwaukee Brewers, a team that handed a combined 96 starts to Jamey Wright, Jimmy Haynes and Allen Levrault, into a contender immediately, or even within a year or two. But the 2001 Milwaukee Brewers handed Jamey Wright, Jimmy Haynes and Allen Levrault 96 starts, and in that sense, Sheets inspired the highest of hopes.
He won Milwaukee’s heart with his first half in 2001. He was demoted after two poor starts to begin the season, and once he returned on April 28th, he dominated. From his return start through the All-Star break, Sheets posted a 3.26 ERA—practically Gibsonian in 2001 as the steroid era wreaked havoc on pitcher statistics across the league. Sheets was the first Brewers rookie to make an All-Star team. The Brewers didn’t give Milwaukee much to watch in 2001, their first year in Miller Park, but at least they had Big Ben.
And so it went for about a half-decade, until Jack Zduriencik’s hitters showed up and powered the 2008 Wild Card club. Sheets arrived on the national scene in 2004, when he posted a 2.70 ERA and absurd league-leading 8.25 K/BB over 237 innings for a 67-win club. The 2004 Brewers were the special type of team that could turn this type of performance—the kind we could see winning a Cy Young thanks to Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez in recent years—into a 12-14 season. But this was before mainstream acceptance of win-loss record as a lesser stat, and so Sheets finished just eighth in Cy Young voting.
Sheets could have been a superstar. Would have been a superstar, even, had his body held up. In 2005, it was vestibular neuritis—effectively persistent vertigo—and a lat strain. In 2006, it was a right shoulder strain that turned into shoulder inflammation. In 2007, it was a middle finger sprain. And in 2008, just as he finished one of his best seasons and helped CC Sabathia carry Milwaukee to their first postseason in 26 years, it was the elbow. Tommy John surgery ended his Brewers career and all but ended his major-league career.
But Sheets should be remembered as more than just what could have been. He was the light at the end of the tunnel. In 2004, as he piled up the strikeouts and consistently dominated National League hitting, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo and Corey Hart were shooting through the minor leagues. Ryan Braun was the club’s first round pick in 2005. The foundation for a competitive team was starting to form, and Ben Sheets was the most visible piece.
Ben Sheets never appeared in a playoff game in a Milwaukee Brewers jersey. It’s one of the biggest shames in the franchise’s history. He gave us a reason to watch as we slogged through the remnants of Bud Selig’s final years of incompetent ownership, and then he led the way in 2008, the year baseball was given new life in Milwaukee. That’s why it’s so fun to go back through the archives and find Russ Bove calling Ben Sheets a no-brainer. He was exactly that for the Brewers, and in return he helped make baseball relevant again in Wisconsin.
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