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Trying to get the most out of Ben Sheets

So, as you probably know, the Brewers offered Ben Sheets arbitration on Monday. He has until Sunday to accept or decline. Offering Sheets arbitration ensures one of the following three outcomes:

  • Sheets declines arbitration and signs with another team. The Brewers get two additional draft picks between the middle of the first round and the middle of the second round in the 2009 draft.
  • Sheets accepts arbitration and either heads to a hearing in February or negotiates a new deal with the Brewers before the hearing.
  • Sheets declines arbitration to keep his options open, but still signs a new deal with the Brewers.

None of those outcomes are particularly bad, but one does carry a fair amount of risk. For those not familiar with the process, in arbitration both sides submit a dollar value they think the player's services are worth for 2009. Both sides present their case to an arbitrator, who will in turn choose one of the two figures, with no middle ground.

The problem with Ben Sheets is that there's a relatively wide spectrum of arguments you can make regarding what he's worth. Eric Seidman of FanGraphs took a look at Sheets' value yesterday and even considering his fragile status, he estimated Sheets' 2009 value at $16.25 million.

If the two teams go to arbitration, Sheets and his representatives could point out that:

  • Sheets has had an ERA+ over 116 in each of the last five seasons, including 139 in 2008.
  • He has a 5.1 strikeout to walk ratio over that same time span, and strikes out 8.4 hitters per nine innings.
  • He's been an NL All Star in three of the last five seasons, and started the All Star game in 2008.
  • In 2008 he tied for the NL lead in shutouts, finished second in complete games and fifth in ERA.

Given all of that, it's reasonable to believe they'd ask for as much as $18-20 million. You can make a case for comparing Sheets to A.J. Burnett, who's believed to be seeking a five year deal worth $75 million or more. In fact, Sheets has similar stats to Burnett despite being two years younger.

On the flip side, the Brewers could point out that:

  • 2008 was the first time since 2004 that Sheets has made 30 starts, and he hasn't thrown 200 innings since 2004.
  • His willingness to work hard at rehab and appropriately prepare himself for the challenges of a 162 game season have been called into question.
  • Sheets' 13 wins in 2008 were a career high, and he's only three games above .500 (86-83) for his career.
  • He's had eight starts over the last three seasons (roughly one in nine starts) where he failed to pitch four full innings.

Given all of that, it's possible the Brewers' arbitration figure could be as low as $10-12 million.

That's a difference of $6-10 million, and it could just come down to which arbitrator hears the case. It's probably fair to assume neither side wants to leave a difference that large to chance. So, if Sheets accepts arbitration, the two sides would seem to have some incentive to work out a deal in advance to avoid the risk. Here's the deal I'd propose:

Two years, $30 million. A team option for a third year at $20 million. If Sheets can either make 30+ starts or pitch 200+ innings in both of the first two seasons of the deal, the option for the third year becomes a player option.

Sheets seems unlikely to take an incentive based deal, so this is likely as close as the Brewers could get to pay-for-performance with him. If he can pitch like an ace for the first two seasons of a deal, then he's earned the right to be paid like one in the third season, either by the Brewers or someone else.

So what do you think? Would you offer this deal? Vote in the poll below.