Brewing home grown talent: What the Nats can learn from Ben Sheets

Before the Brewers clinched the Wild Card in 2008, the last time they had been in the playoffs Ronald Reagan was only in his second year of his first term.

It was a struggle for the Brewers from 1982-2008, filled with 16 years of embarrassment, futility, and well, Bud Selig-ness. The low point came in 2002 when the Brewers finished the season in last place with a record of 56-106. Brewers fans had had-it, following the 2002 season the club hired a new General Manager, Doug Melvin.

Under Melvin’s tutelage, the Brewers developed and grew arguably the league’s best home grown talent.

First came pitching phenom Ben Sheets. Sheets had been drafted in 1999, 10th overall by the Brewers, and by 2000 he was an Olympic hero for the American Baseball team. He soon rode his newfound fame to the Major Leagues, however many speculated that he may have been rushed. For three years sheets produced mediocre results, which were interrupted by shoulder problems.

33-99786-fIn 2004 however Sheets broke out in a big way. In 34 starts the hard throwing righty posted a 2.70 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 264 strikeouts to only 32 walks in 220 innings pitched. Those numbers were good enough for the leagues best strikeout to walk ratio and for a second All Star appearance for Sheets.

Then for the Brewers came the young home grown hitters we all know today. And as Sheets combined with Fielder, Braun, Weeks, Hart and eventually Sabathia the team rose to the top of the standings in 2008.

In the second half of 2008 Sabathia and Sheets were sensational for the Brewers. Sabathia recorded seven complete games and three shutouts. In 130 innings the big fella went 11-2, posted a 1.65 ERA and struck out 128. Sheets matched his brilliance with three shutouts of his own, along with a 3.09 ERA.

However the team met their downfall in the playoffs when Sheets could not pitch due to yet another arm injury. They lost 3-1 in the NLDS to eventual World Champions, the Philadelphia Phillies.

While the Brewers learned an important lesson about homegrown talent in 2008, that it needed to be supplemented by outside help, they also found that with Sheets Health, went the season.

Sheets arm troubles came from years of over work in a time when he should have been developing. By the time the Brewers needed him to be the Cy Young caliber pitcher he was, his arm was already on the fritz. The Brewers were in a bind in the early part of the decade and they needed their phenom young stud to pitch in the majors, whether that would result in success or failure.

If the Nationals are lucky, newly introduced pitcher Stephen Strasburg may someday reach the level of Ben Sheets at his best. Like Sheets ,Strasburg pitches above 95 miles per hour, has great breaking pitches, and tremendous strikeout potential.

Sheets and Strasburg both hold the distinction of striking out 20 batters in one Division I college baseball game, and of course they both hold the distinction of being anointed the savior of a franchise much in need of saving.

Both young starters pitched for team USA and both were considered at that time, essentially MLB ready.

Today however, the two stand very much apart in their careers, as Strasburg was just introduced into the league, and Sheets is currently on the outside looking in. Yet another shoulder surgery in the 2008 offseason left Sheets without a team for 2009, and while he will likely be back someday, neither he nor the Brewers will find the form they had in 2008 for a while.

The Nationals must learn from the Brewers cautionary tale and protect their investment. While we all may be itching to see number 37 in uniform, lets remember that number 15 no longer is.

Patience; it’s the key to hitting, it’s the key to pitching, and it’s the key to long careers.