Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin caught reporters slightly off guard at the GM meetings in Chicago this week when he observed that "no one has heard from" former Brewers right-hander Ben Sheets. More than one media outlet took the comment as a sign that Sheets might be backing off an attempted comeback in 2010.
According to Sheets' agent, that interpretation couldn't be further from the truth.
Agent Casey Close said that Sheets is doing "very well" in his rehab from flexor tendon surgery and plans to be 100 percent by the start of spring training. Close also anticipates no shortage of interest from clubs in the coming weeks.
"We have already heard from a number of teams inquiring about Ben's health and availability for 2010," Close said in an e-mail Friday to ESPN.com. "I will tell you that he has a very good chance to be one of the most impactful free agents, without question."
Sheets, 31, made four All-Star teams in Milwaukee and established a reputation as one of baseball's most formidable "stuff" pitchers despite a career record of 86-83. His best season came in 2004, when he posted a 12-14 record with a 2.70 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 237 innings.
But after three straight 200-inning seasons, Sheets took a step backward because of injuries. He made five trips to the disabled list from 2005 to 2007 with a variety of arm ailments and an inner ear infection that led to vertigo.
Sheets was on the verge of signing an incentive-laden contract with Texas just before spring training when an MRI exam confirmed the torn flexor tendon in his right elbow. He underwent surgery last February, with a projected recovery time of six to 10 months.
"While we gave some initial thought to [Sheets] pitching at some point during the 2009 season, it was not worth risking any sort of setback, so Ben kept his steady schedule," Close said.
Sheets and his advisers plan to cite a recent historical parallel in their sales pitch to potential suitors. In 2004, Andy Pettitte, then 32, had flexor tendon surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews, the same doctor who later operated on Sheets. Pettitte posted a 17-9 record with a 2.39 ERA in 2005 and has averaged 210 innings pitched in the past five seasons.
If healthy, Sheets is likely to attract considerable interest in a thin market for starting pitching. Most executives see a significant drop-off in free-agent starters after John Lackey. That could prompt teams to try to upgrade via trade, with Atlanta's Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe, Cincinnati's Bronson Arroyo, and Detroit's Edwin Jackson among the names that have been mentioned in early speculation.
Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux, who worked with Sheets in Milwaukee, has publicly expressed his admiration for Sheets. Melvin and the Brewers have also indicated they might be interested in a reunion.
A National League executive speculated that the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Angels and Twins are among the other clubs that might be players for Sheets, depending on how much money the pitcher wants.
Three front-office officials envisioned a late-developing market for Sheets, with the action likely to heat up in January and possibly extend into February. The consensus is that Sheets will have to audition for clubs, much as Kris Benson, Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder and other injury-rehab pitchers have done in recent years.
"You're going to have to go through the medical reports and at least have some chance to observe him on the mound, because nobody has seen him pitch in more than a year," an American League assistant general manager said. "I think a lot of teams have questions that they would need some clarity about."
Executives said interest in Sheets could hinge on how much guaranteed money he expects. If he's willing to take a contract with a relatively low base salary and lots of incentives, it could expand the market for him. Sheets made $12.125 million in 2008.
"There are plenty of teams looking to take a low-level flier on him, but I don't know if he's going to be willing to do that,'' an NL executive said. "It could get interesting. It's really all in his hands."
Jerry Crasnick covers Major League Baseball for ESPN.com.