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The Biggest Contract in Brewers History

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I know, I know, I've taken my sweet time getting around to this, I've tested your patience...what, you weren't anxiously awaiting my first published words on the Sheets contract so much that you forgot to eat this past weekend? Oh well.

First off, let's make one thing very clear: giving a 25-year-old pitcher a four-year, $38.5 million contract is a gamble. (Duh.) Yes, Sheets has been remarkably consistent, pitching a couple hundred innings a year since '02, and his 2004 season was one of the best by a pitcher in all of baseball. I love that he's on our team, and I'm rooting for him to earn every one of those 38.5 million dollars.

But whatever may be the case with Sheets, pitchers are injury-prone, almost by definition. One of Ben's most comparable contemporary players is Brad Penny, who has also been fairly durable: at least 23 starts a year since 2000, twice topping 30. Not quite ironman-Sheets numbers, but solid over a five year span. Penny may well come back and make 30 starts for each of the next 3 years, but the Dodgers can hardly count on him. One lingering malady (which we can only hope Ben's back does not become) and Sheets becomes the next Brad Penny, Doug Davis becomes the ace, and Rick Helling comes up from AAA to make way too many starts.

And what about Sheets's great 2004 season? He put up an ERA+ of 154--fourth best in the NL, surpassing fellow Cy Young candidates Roger Clemens and Jason Schmidt. Anybody who consistently puts together seasons like that deserves $10 mil a year and more, but not only was this the first year Ben Sheets was in contention for the Cy Young Award, 2004 was the first time he was above average.

From 2001-2003, Sheets's ERA+'s were 93, 96, and 98, where 100 is average. Just two years ago, our ace pitcher went 11-13 with a 4.45 ERA. Not horrible--and I grant that teams handed out pretty big contracts to guys no better than that this past offseason, but that bodes for a substantial step backwards in 2005. Not all the way back to 4.45 or an ERA+ of 98, but enough to keep Sheets safely out of the top 10 in Cy Young voting.

Since contracts are all relative--it's only meaningful to talk about whether a guy is worth $38.5 million if we know what else $38.5 million can buy you--let's compare Ben to Johan Santana. Sheets and Santana are the same age, have the same service time, and signed virtually identical contracts; Santana got a bit more. Santana hasn't racked up innings like Ben has, but that's mostly because he hasn't had the chance. He worked out of the pen for parts of every year before 2004, so direct comparisons are a little tricky. But since ERA+ is such a good benchmark (it adjusts for league and park factors), let's start there. Santana's 2002-2004 ERA+'s were 148, 151, and a staggering 182. In other words, Santana has maintained for three years--since the age of 23--the level of performance Sheets has only attained once, at age 25. Sheets could be a great pitcher. Santana is a great pitcher.

I've been fairly negative up to this point, which isn't entirely fair. There are signs that Ben will maintain his current level of performance. His increased K rate last year--quite a bit higher than 1 per inning--indicates that he can look forward to more success. It's reasonable to think that a pitcher could "put it all together" at age 25 for the first time, and remain among the best in the game for another 4 years. To take just one example, Sandy Koufax's first very good season was at age 25, and it wasn't quite as good as Ben's was last year. No one's going to complain if Sheets gives us Sandy Koufax's 1962-1965 seasons over the course of this contract! Ron Guidry and Bob Gibson also waited until age 25/26 to give signs of their impending greatness.

Further, if Ben sustains anything close to his current level of performance, the Brewers get a bargain in '07 and '08. For this and next year, the contract is essentially a wash: they pay him an extra $3 mil this year, save $2 or $3 mil next year compared to what he might get in arbitration or settle for in a one-year contract. But by buying out his first two years of free-agency, the Brewers can hold onto their ace without bidding against the Yankees and Red Sox. If Bob Uecker strikes a deal with the devil and Ben Sheets really does turn into Sandy Koufax, we'll have the best pitcher in baseball fronting a very promising young team for roughly the same salary that the Yankees are paying the decidedly un-Koufax-like Jaret Wright.

And I guess Ben would start throwing left-handed, but you get the idea.

My main concern with this deal is not whether Ben will be worth the money (though I wonder about those '07 and '08 seasons), but whether the Brewers payroll can stand another "big" contract. It would appear that the days of $30 million payrolls are gone forever, but even with a $50 mil payroll, the Sheets contract will eat up 20%. If the Crew picks up Lee's 2006 option, two contract will be just short of half of a $40 million payroll. Of course, it's easier to spend that kind of money when you know that guys like Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, and Rickie Weeks could be in your lineup for close to the league minimum. But putting together a team beyond a core of youngsters and those two stars is tough to do on the kind of money the Brewers are working with.

One last thing. I've been reminded frequently that the contract is, or soon will be, insured. Great--that protects us against Tommy John surgery, anyway. But remember, insurance doesn't protect against anything but the longest injuries: there's no compensation when Ben misses two months, unless the Brewers have lined up a very unusual injury policy. And this second thing is obvious, but I'm going to say it anyway: insurance doesn't protect against mediocrity. If Sheets goes back to being a league-average innings eater, he still costs $10 million a year.

Long story short: lots of upside, a good bit of downside, particularly risky for a small-market team, especially with a pitcher. (And frankly the same can be said of the Twins and Santana, though in that case the upside is higher and higher-percentage, and the payroll isn't quite as small.) I wouldn't have made this deal, but I might've been happy for the same duration at $7.5 or $8 million a year.

Now I can get off my transaction-analysis pedestal and start rooting for him to make me sound like a fool. I've added a poll, so you can tell me now that I'm a fool, rather than wait a few years.