Yes, the Braves needed veteran help for their starting rotation, and they think they have found some in Ben Sheets, whom they signed to a minor league contract after he underwent a physical on Sunday and dispatched to Double-A Mississippi for a couple of starts.
But in doing so, the Braves might also be providing a southern backdrop to a Hollywood story like “The Rookie.”
Sheets was drafted No. 10 overall by the Brewers in 1999, the year Rays reliever Jim Morris made his improbable rise from high school baseball coach to the majors at age 35 and inspired the movie.
Sheets, a four-time All-Star with the Milwaukee Brewers who once struck out 18 Braves in a game in 2004, was out of baseball at 33 years old after two elbow surgeries. His last comeback attempt with the Oakland Athletics ended in the dreaded “Tommy John,” and he hadn’t pitched a full season in four years.
Sheets, who turns 34 on July 18, was living in Monroe, La. where his primary job was coaching for his 9-year-old son’s Seaver’s Little League team. But he did just enough throwing to those boys, without feeling any pain in his elbow, to wonder if he might have the stuff to get back again.
Seaver, named for Mets Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, offered up the backyard “Throwback” machine his dad had bought him to pitch to, so he could find out for himself.
“I’d throw against a ‘Throwback’ at 11 o’clock at night and tick my neighbors off,” Sheets said Sunday, after throwing a bullpen at Turner Field. “They keep flipping their lights on and off like ‘Go inside, Son.’”
Sheets said he built up his arm strength on his own, without coaches or trainers or much of a goal at first, other than his son’s encouragement.
“My little boy would go out there and root me on like ‘C’mon dad, you can do it’,” Sheets said.
After more than two months of throwing without elbow pain, his agent put out a feeler and the Braves were among a handful off teams to scout him three weeks ago in Monroe.
Sheets spent the first part of the week at East Cobb in Marietta at a tournament with his son’s Little League team. He used the trip to throw a five-inning simulated game Thursday at Georgia Tech in front of scouts from the Braves and four other teams. The Braves clocked him at 91, 92 mph, not far off the mid-90s fastball of his Milwaukee heyday.
Sheets gave a pretty good indication who might win his services when he showered at Tech, changed, and took his son’s team to the Braves-Diamondbacks game that night at Turner Field.
He and his agent spent a couple of innings in general manager Frank Wren’s box, but most of the game Sheets sat in the left field stands with Little Leaguers wearing new Braves caps Wren had sent out.
Sheets wanted a shot at the postseason.
“I’ve seen a playoff when we made it in 07 but I’ve never been a part of it,” said Sheets, who sat out with an elbow injury.
The Braves will still explore trading for a proven starter at the trade deadline, with the Cubs’ Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza and Milwaukee ace Zack Greinke among those they’ve discussed, but they feel like they’ve already taken a step in the right direction.
“We’re getting a guy who is a four-time All-Star and there is nothing wrong with his arm,” Wren said. “You have a quality major league pitcher prior to the deadline without having to give up any talent. It really is the best of all worlds.”
Sheets is scheduled to make at least two starts in Double-A Mississippi, largely because it’s only 90 minutes from his home in Louisiana. He’ll go five innings or 75 pitches on Wednesday, then six innings or 90 pitches in a start after that. If all goes well, the Braves think he could be ready shortly after the All-Star break.
“I think it’s a great find by Frank and our people,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Here’s a guy that I think everything is an upside, really. There’s not downside to it.”
Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez caught his bullpen session on Sunday at Turner Field, just like he caught Sheets back in 2003 with the Brewers. Sheets’ old personal catcher thinks he’s back.
“It reminds me of when I caught him in Milwaukee because of the stuff he threw today,” Perez said. “It’s pretty much the same. He’s been working out. He looks really good. He’s pain-free too, which to me is the most important thing.”
It’s been 22 months since his last surgery, and Sheets said he trusts his elbow again.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit whenever your arm feels good,” Sheets said. “I’m not telling you I’m throwing 100. But I’m just saying ball is coming out of my hand really good.”
Staff writer David O’Brien contributed information to this story.