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Tigers acquire Sheffield for prospects

Tigers land Sheffield for prospects

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DETROIT -- The Tigers' Hot Stove season search for a big-name slugger ended before the stove was really warm. But it didn't come cheap.

Detroit made the first headline move of baseball's offseason on Friday, acquiring outfielder Gary Sheffield from the Yankees for pitching prospects Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan and Anthony Claggett, then signing Sheffield to a two-year, $28 million contract extension through 2009.

The move reunites another piece of the 1997 World Series champion Marlins with the general manager and field manager who helped put that team together.

"I was ecstatic," Sheffield said of the news, "because I get reunited with the people that I've always loved and I've always talked about the last 10 years. They're all business-minded. They're smart people. They're respectful people. They treat you like men. To be reunited with them after 10 years, it's a blessing."

More importantly for the present, Tigers president/GM Dave Dombrowski filled his top need with the run-producing bat he wanted to pump up the middle of his batting order. Suddenly, a lineup better known for its balance this year than its individual parts has somebody in the middle for pitchers to fear.

"You talk about adding a bat to your ballclub," manager Jim Leyland said, "and then you talk about adding Gary Sheffield. It's a whole different scenario. This is one of the ultimate bats in baseball and one of the ultimate people in baseball."

Leyland should know. Nearly a decade ago, Sheffield was the focal point in the middle of the lineup for Leyland's Marlins, an already feared bat just entering his prime age at 28. He's at a different stage of his career now, a week away from his 38th birthday. But with his production when healthy over the last several years, the Tigers were willing to bet he has some good years left.

The right-handed-hitting slugger was limited to just 39 regular-season games this year due to a left wrist injury, but he had three consecutive 30-homer, 120-RBI seasons before that in the middle of a star-studded Yankees lineup.

Just as important for the Tigers, he was one of the most keen-eyed members of a New York offense known for working pitch counts and drawing walks, something Leyland was hoping to add to his often free-swinging club.

As much talent as Sheffield has, however, he was expendable to the Yankees, whose acquisition of Bobby Abreu last July to fill in for an injured Sheffield turned out to provide a replacement instead. Sheffield moved to first base once he returned from the disabled list, with mixed results.

The Yankees made no secret of offering him up on the trade market in recent days once they exercised his $13 million option for next year. In turn, Sheffield was far from quiet about his wishes for a contract extension if he were to be dealt, and especially if he were expected to move to first base full-time.

The Tigers don't want him to play first; they still hope to fill that position this offseason. Leyland said that he'll primarly use Sheffield at designated hitter with some playing time in right field and possibly left, essentially filling the role that Dmitri Young used to have.

"He's a complete player," Leyland said. "I can do a lot of things with him. I have no plans to play him at first base. I don't want to take advantage of the versatility to where it gets on his mind and affects his hitting. That's the intention right now."

Sheffield had no problem with that.

"I look at it as a blessing in disguise," he said. "With my ability, I feel like I could play the outfield every day for the next three years."

Nor did the Tigers intend to have Sheffield as a rental player. Dombrowski said that they had essentially reached an agreement on the trade itself with the Yankees on Tuesday afternoon, but he insisted on talking with Sheffield and agent Rufus Williams to make sure that he was comfortable with the move and to gauge his interest in a contract extension.

"We much preferred having Gary for three years than we did for one," Dombrowski said. "I feel he'll be hitting past the three years, myself. We felt like we were giving up some good players. We want him to be with the organization [for a long time]."

Once the particulars of the deal were agreed upon, the Tigers received permission from the Commissioner's office for a 72-hour window to negotiate an extension, giving them until Friday afternoon to reach a contract agreement or call off the deal.

While Leyland and Sheffield talked on Tuesday night, Tigers legal counsel and chief negotiator John Westhoff began discussions with Williams, talks that continued until an agreement was reached on Thursday night.

The timetable means that Sheffield already knew that he was on his way to becoming a Tiger when he took his now-infamous parting shots at the Yankees on Wednesday night at a charity event in Times Square. He was much more diplomatic about his time in New York when asked on Friday.

"The only thing I'm disappointed about is I didn't bring them a world championship," Sheffield said. "I didn't go there for the publicity. I went there for the big stage and to get a ring. Everything else was everything I expected and then some.

"I had a wonderful time there. I generated some excitement. I had a fan base other than anything I'd experienced."

Once the contract agreement was reached, the Tigers quickly brought in Sheffield for a physical and found no cause for alarm. The surgically repaired wrist, Sheffield said, won't be a problem, and it should be stronger than it was before.

With that, Leyland started doing one of his favorite offseason pastimes.

"I made about 30 lineups out last night," Leyland said, "and I can assure you his name was in every one of them. He's going to be in the middle somewhere -- third, fourth or fifth. I can tell you I was a pretty happy camper when I got my pad and pen out at 1 in the morning and wrote his name in a lineup. It was almost like I was in disbelief."

Sheffield comes to Detroit without the Tigers breaking up their vaunted pitching staff in return, but the price will cost Leyland at least two names he would've likely had a chance to write into his pitching staff in a year or two. The 23-year-old Sanchez was considered the top pitching prospect in a farm system deep in arms before Detroit drafted Andrew Miller. He was one of the most frequently mentioned names in trade rumors last July until an elbow injury essentially ended his season.

Long regarded as a high-potential arm, Sanchez used this as his breakout season. The burly right-hander went 5-3 with a 1.76 ERA in 11 starts at Double-A Erie before posting the same record with a 3.86 ERA at Triple-A Toledo.

Whelan, 22, was one of the jewels of Detroit's 2005 First-Year Player Draft, a closer in the making who saved 27 games for Class A Lakeland this year to go with a 4-1 record and 2.67 ERA. Claggett, 22, went 7-2 with a 0.91 ERA and 14 saves for low Class A West Michigan.

The deal marks the first time since Dombrowski took over that the Tigers have surrendered some of their top pitching talent for immediate gain. Time will tell whether Detroit remains a World Series contender by the end of Sheffield's contract, but the move helps strengthen its defense of the American League pennant for 2007.

"We gave up a lot," Dombrowski admitted. "We think they're all going to pitch in the big leagues and have a nice career, but I also realize if you're going to get Gary, you're going to have to give up talent. And we were also able to give up [from a position of] depth. It was tough, but it was also one we thought was worth it under the circumstances."

From Sheffield's perspective, as much as he would've liked to stay a Yankee, the move is worth the trouble.

"I'm more than happy to be reunited with guys I'm familiar with," he said. "I know this is meant for a reason."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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