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Saturday, March 3, 2007
Sheets' new pitch could change Brewers' fortunes

By Jerry Crasnick

PHOENIX -- Bad news for National League clubs: Milwaukee's Ben Sheets is tinkering with his changeup this spring, and he seems to be getting the hang of it.

Ben Sheets
Among pitchers with more than 100 innings pitched in 2006, Ben Sheets led the majors in K/BB ratio (10.55).
Sheets professed to throw a changeup for years, but the consensus is that the pitch had a little too much zip to complement his mid-90s fastball and power curve. Now he's picked up some tips from reliever Matt Wise, and he threw three nice changes in a row in an intrasquad game this week.

When Sheets arrived in Milwaukee's camp two weeks ago, he was throwing nothing but heaters. He lashed out at unnamed teammates who he claims questioned his work ethic when he was slow to recover from shoulder problems last year.

"To me it was ridiculous. It's still ridiculous," Sheets told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "One thing you learn is how quick people turn their back on you. People write you off in a heartbeat."

Hypersensitive? Perhaps. But as the people in Brewers camp are quick to point out, it's flat wrong to characterize Sheets as some sort of glass man. He averaged 224 innings per season from 2002 through 2004 before the injuries began mounting. Now Sheets knows how it feels to be poked, prodded and publicly dissected a la Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

It's understandable for the expectations to be high. Sheets has a career record of 61-69, but he plays for a team that's an aggregate 415-556 in that same span. Three years ago Sheets ranked second to Arizona's Randy Johnson in strikeouts and WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and finished eighth in the Cy Young balloting, and he still went 12-14.

"When Benny is dealing, it's hard to describe," said teammate Chris Capuano. "It's like waves keep coming at you. He's relentless out there. The fielders are on their toes, and as fellow pitchers, we're watching pitching the way it's supposed to be done. There's a positive ripple effect on everybody."

The Brewers potentially have one of the strongest rotations in the National League Central. Capuano tied for the major league lead with 25 quality starts last year. Jeff Suppan went 44-26 from 2004 to '06 and has that impressive postseason pedigree. Dave Bush hardly walks anyone but hits plenty of batters -- a testament to his willingness to pitch inside. And Claudio Vargas, acquired from Arizona in the Doug Davis trade, won 12 games for the Diamondbacks.

If Vargas can't cut it, the Brewers have two options: Carlos Villanueva, who was impressive in 10 appearances for Milwaukee a year ago, or Yovani Gallardo, who led the minor leagues with 188 strikeouts. Gallardo has been compared to a young Javier Vazquez, and ranks 16th on Baseball America's list of the game's top prospects.

Around the desert
Bill Hall
• The Brewers ran the 60-yard dash en masse in camp this week, and Bill Hall peeled off his uniform to reveal a Michael Johnson-type singlet. Then Prince Fielder joined in the fun by massaging his calves. Hall and Rickie Weeks both ran well. But Corey Hart, who is slated to play right field for Milwaukee, smoked the field with a time of 6.59 seconds.

• Milwaukee plans to give prospect Ryan Braun a long look at third base this spring. Braun can hit, but the Brewers will probably start him in the minors so he can work on his defense, and go with a Craig Counsell-Tony Graffanino combination at third.

• A couple of American League West teams are dabbling in small ball. Texas manager Ron Washington has made daily "pepper" games part of the schedule so that his players can get a better feel for bat control and moving runners when the Rangers are having trouble generating offense.

It hasn't snowed in the Phoenix area this spring, but Oakland manager Bob Geren actually made his team take part in bunting drills last week. The A's annually rank near the bottom of the majors in sacrifices, and assistant general manager David Forst was hard-pressed to recall the last time an Oakland player bunted for a hit.

"Since Ramon [Hernandez] did it against Boston in the playoffs [in 2003], I can't remember one," Forst said.

• With Dave Roberts gone to San Francisco through free agency, the Padres are scrambling to find a leadoff hitter.

Marcus Giles is a candidate, but he has a career .859 OPS in the No. 2 hole and a .717 OPS at leadoff. The Padres think that Giles' finger injury contributed to his subpar numbers last year, but scouts believe his struggles at leadoff are a result of him seeing fewer fastballs than he does in the second spot. "The guy is a great fastball hitter," said a scout in Arizona.

Brian Giles
B. Giles
If the Padres can sell Brian Giles on the idea, he might be their best leadoff choice. Giles' slugging percentage gradually declined from .622 to .397 in a five-year span, but he has a career on-base percentage of .408.

Manager Bud Black's final alternative is the left-field platoon of Terrmel Sledge and Jose Cruz Jr. It's hard to find anyone who's really excited about that scenario.

• The Mariners are hoping some of their 116-win mojo from 2001 rubs off on the current club. While Seattle's trainers work with Jose Vidro to get his hamstrings in the best possible condition, Edgar Martinez is in Peoria helping Vidro with the mental adjustment of being a designated hitter. Jay Buhner and Dan Wilson, two other Seattle franchise favorites, will be in town to help manager Mike Hargrove and his staff next week.

• The mercurial Jose Guillen, who signed a one-year, $5 million contract with Seattle over the winter, is throwing at about 70 percent of capacity eight months after elbow surgery. He'll be confined to a DH role for most of spring training while Ben Broussard, Jeremy Reed, Mike Morse and others divvy up the right-field at-bats.

Guillen, however, has been impressive in the cage. Hargrove told reporters that Guillen has the "most pure swing" in camp. And after watching Guillen take batting practice, Seattle bench coach John McLaren observed, "He can hit a ball as hard as anybody in the major leagues."

• Kansas City manager Buddy Bell said his son, David, plans to get his back problems addressed this year with an eye toward returning to play in 2008. David Bell went unsigned as a free agent this winter after hitting .270 with 10 homers and 63 RBI for the Phillies and Brewers in 2006. He has an appointment lined up with Dr. Robert Watkins in Los Angeles, and surgery is a possibility.

The Brewers need to upgrade their defense, not to mention an offense that ranked 13th in the league in on-base percentage and 14th in runs scored. But they have a surplus of power arms in the bullpen and enough outfield depth that Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench began camp with some preemptive squawking about sharing playing time in left.

Ultimately, Sheets will be a pivotal figure if the Brewers are to finally assert themselves in a vulnerable division. General manager Doug Melvin likes what he's seen since that early venting session.

"Ben looks loosey-goosey, and the ball is coming out of his hand real good," Melvin said. "You can tell his thermal gauge by the way he is in the clubhouse. He's always joking around, but he didn't do it last year because the injuries wouldn't allow him to contribute. He was hurt, and he probably felt guilty as hell."

Foot note

Deion Sanders once observed that suffering from turf toe is the equivalent of having a truck run over your foot. After a prolonged ordeal with plantar fasciitis in both feet, Shannon Stewart wishes he had turf toe.

Stewart appeared in 92 games for Minnesota in 2004 and only 44 last year because of his foot issues. The condition was so painful, he kept a bat next to his bed so he could use it as a cane when he got up in the morning.

"I've separated my shoulder," Stewart said. "I've had a hernia injury and a pulled hamstring. This thing is totally different and really frustrating. People say, 'What's wrong with you, man?' But they don't understand. It feels like somebody has a nail and they're hammering it into my foot when I'm walking, or they've got a knife and they're cutting it. It's ridiculous."

Enough teams were scared off by Stewart's health that he had to wait until January to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with Oakland. Now that Bobby Kielty is out three to six weeks with a knee injury and Mark Kotsay's back is acting up, the Athletics might be counting on Stewart more than they planned out of the chute.

During a typical day, Stewart applies both heat and ice to his left foot, has his calves massaged, works a "stretch board," has muscle stimulation and soaks his feet in a whirlpool. At night, he'll dunk his puppies in a tub with some Epsom salts.

"It's a headache, but I like to play," Stewart said. "There are days you don't want to ice. You wish you could just go out there and not worry about it. But this is the road I have to take, and I'm on it."

Thanks, Leo

If Russ Ortiz makes the Giants' Opening Day roster as the team's No. 5 starter, he might be calling the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse to share the good news.

Ortiz was such a disaster in Arizona, the Diamondbacks released him with more than two years and about $22 million left on his contract. Baltimore picked him up at the urging of Leo Mazzone, who was the pitching coach in Atlanta when Ortiz won 36 games for the Braves in 2003-2004.

Mazzone, who isn't known for film study and breaking down pitching mechanics, dissected Ortiz's motion and found that he was gradually pulling in his elbow and short-arming the ball. Ortiz finished the season with an 0-8 record and an 8.14 ERA.

Ortiz threw more than 30 innings in Puerto Rico over the winter, and he's an early feel-good story in San Francisco's camp. He retired nine straight batters in his Cactus League debut against the Cubs on Thursday, and so far, at least, it appears that his ball has more life on it. Considering the depths to which he sank, anything positive is almost shocking.

"I appreciate Leo so much, to go that extra mile to help me get back to where he knows I can be," Ortiz said. "I'm a big fan of his."

Given the Orioles' typically hideous luck, Ortiz might come back and win 15 games for the Giants.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.