If the Milwaukee Brewers are to snap their string of "non-winning" seasons (14, including a .500 finish in 2005), or even come close to snapping their playoff drought (25 years), they need a healthy Ben Sheets at the top of the starting rotation, and they need him to pitch like an ace.
Sound familiar? Seems like the same thing was said at the start of Spring Training last year, when the Brewers appeared poised to join the top tier of the National League Central. Instead, Sheets battled various shoulder problems all year, apparently related to the muscle in his back that he tore in August of the previous season. By September, the Brewers were out of the race.
Whether he stays healthy this season is anybody's guess, including, as he readily admits, Sheets' own. At least he's more confident than he was at this time last year.
"How can't you be?" Sheets said after lunch at Maryvale Baseball Park earlier this week. "I'm in better throwing shape than I've been for a long time."
The problem for the Brewers at this time last year was that no one knew how a pitcher would respond to a torn latissimus dorsi, or "lat." It's one of the largest muscles in the human body, and Sheets tore his during a brilliant stretch after the 2005 All-Star break. He was limited to 22 starts, ending a three-season streak of at least 34 starts and 200-plus innings.
Sheets reported for 2006 Spring Training and suffered a setback in early March, probably the result of scar tissue breaking free behind his right shoulder. Sheets returned from the disabled list on April 16 and made four starts, including a mediocre outing against the Astros on May 2 in which he was pounded for seven runs and nine hits in 2 1/3 innings. Sheets' fastball, usually electric at 94-96 mph, topped out in the mid-80s.
Back to the disabled list. Right-hander Tomo Ohka joined Sheets days later, and though both pitchers returned in July and pitched relatively well down the stretch, the Brewers never really factored in the pennant race.
"We knew that if those guys stayed healthy, we had a good chance to do something really special," said fellow starter Chris Capuano, a 2006 All-Star. "We knew that it was going to be very hard to fill those spots. We can afford fewer mistakes, fewer injuries, and you really need your big guns to stay healthy."
Sheets threw off a mound at Maryvale Baseball Park on Friday and the shoulder appears fine. But he also has issues with his back, an ongoing source of pain that required surgery following his dominant 2004 season. Sheets is participating in fielding drills this spring but said he tries to be "smart about it."
Still, he says, "I felt a lot better than I thought I would."
He went back to his old offseason routine, and began to ramp up in mid-January. Sheets went lighter on the weights and concentrated on building throwing stamina. He threw for 20 minutes last week and said he felt "great." Last year, he was throwing 10-minute sessions at the start of camp and was fatigued.
"I didn't feel like myself all of last year," Sheets said. "It had nothing to do with the lat. But I think when you miss that much time, it's hard to ever get into good pitching shape. I was capable of pitching well, but it took me longer than usual to get going in each game."
"It was frustrating, for sure," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "But Benny's a warrior. He's not one to duck a challenge, that's for sure. He's proven that."
Sheets' biggest challenge was the rumble of criticism, which he now admits hurt more than the sore arm. Fans wondered why it was taking the Brewers' $38.5 million man so long to recover. Some said the Brewers made a mistake in giving him a then-club record four-year contract extension in 2005. Sheets was particularly upset by one story in which an anonymous clubhouse source questioned his slow recovery.
"It's like, people have patience with a guy coming back from Tommy John [ligament surgery], but they didn't have patience with this," Sheets said. "They thought it should just heal overnight.
"Nobody would ever stick a name by their statement. What were people hiding behind? You can say anything and hide. But if I come back this year and have a great year, they're all going to be back on the bandwagon saying, 'I knew he would be fine.' They'd be willing to stick their name by that."
The Brewers appear better poised to deal with injuries this season. Gone is reliable lefty Doug Davis, but right-hander Claudio Vargas is coming off a 12-win season with Arizona and free-agent pickup Jeff Suppan has a long history of durability. Capuano and Dave Bush are coming off strong seasons.
Maddux is cautious about putting too much importance on the guy at the top of the rotation.
"Benny is 20 percent of the puzzle," Maddux said. "I don't think you can put all of the burden on one guy, because he can't throw every game. But it's good for team morale to have your best pitchers out there because they give you the best chance to win."
For his part, Sheets says he has moved on from 2006. He brushes off the notion that he has something to prove.
"What would I have a chip on my shoulder for?" Sheets said. "I want to come out and pitch. I don't have to prove nothin'. I want to succeed. I want to help this team. Some people are maybe motivated by proving people wrong. That ain't me."
His beloved New Orleans Saints are a source of inspiration. They went 3-13 during the 2005 NFL regular season, but bounced back in 2006 and made it all the way to the NFC championship game. Sheets attended a handful of games, including the NFC championship loss at Chicago, but purposely has not gotten to know any of the Saints personally ("It's better that way because they're your heroes," he says). He roots for them with the same fervor that Milwaukee fans pull for the Brewers.
All of a sudden, Saints fans are back on the bandwagon. Sheets thinks the same thing could happen in Milwaukee.
"They were terrible for years," Sheets said. "All of a sudden, they start winning and the people act like they've been with them all along. We've had a lot of losing, but I think that right now we're looked at to be pretty good. The Saints weren't expected at all. People expect things from us, and that's a good thing."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.