The first big item on Ben Sheets' offseason agenda comes Dec. 14, when he will serve as grand marshal of the Christmas parade in Gonzales, La. -- aka "the jambalaya capital of the world."
Sometime before spring training, Sheets will find out where he'll be pitching in 2009. He might have to wait in line behind CC Sabathia, Derek Lowe, Ryan Dempster and A.J. Burnett for an answer to that question.
Sheets, 30, is one of the biggest talents on the open market this winter. He has a better career strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.85-to-1) than Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay, and a lower career WHIP (1.20) than Josh Beckett and Brandon Webb. He was also the starting pitcher for the National League at the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in July.
But a late-season elbow flare-up has rekindled questions about Sheets' health and durability just as he's entering free agency. His velocity and his stuff are a heck of a lot better than his timing.
While Sabathia was dominant down the stretch in Milwaukee's pursuit of its first postseason appearance since 1982, Sheets was missing in action over the final few weeks. He threw only 4 1/3 regular-season innings after Sept. 11, and he was unable to pitch in Milwaukee's National League Division Series loss to Philadelphia.
It was the latest in a series of maladies for Sheets, who was bothered by everything from back problems to inner ear infections to hamstring issues during his time in Milwaukee. After pitching 200 innings annually from 2002 through 2004, he failed to reach that benchmark for four straight seasons. This year, he fell just short at 198 1/3.
Although Sheets' secondary numbers are impressive, he has a career record of 86-83 and set a personal high with 13 wins this season.
Agent Casey Close said that Sheets' latest problem -- a flexor muscle tear -- is expected to fully heal in the offseason. Sheets probably could have pitched in October if the Brewers had shut him down for two or three starts in August. But with the team scrambling for a postseason berth, Sheets didn't have the luxury of another visit to the disabled list. He threw complete-game, five-hit shutouts against Washington and San Diego in a span of six starts in August and September before the pain became too much to bear.
"I guess the best way to describe it is, it's like a hamstring pull in your elbow," Close said. "There's no structural damage, and [the doctors] don't look for any long-term negative impact to the elbow. But the bottom line is, you have to give it the necessary rest and time to heal."
Close said he has talked to "about a dozen clubs" and that negotiations should heat up after Friday, when teams have greater access to Sheets' medical information and are free to talk money with him. Only Milwaukee can discuss dollars with Sheets during the 15-day filing period, and the Brewers have yet to delve beyond the conceptual level at this point.
Within baseball circles, there's a healthy skepticism over the state of Sheets' elbow, and the consensus is that most clubs will be hesitant to give Sheets the type of long-term deal that the other elite free-agent pitchers will command. Sabathia might be looking at a six-year contract, and the other front-tier starters can expect at least four.
"Even if Sheets is over the specific injury that caused him to miss time this year, I think his market will be dampened by the fact that this was another in a series of ailments that have plagued him throughout his career," said one American League executive. "I suspect any club to be wary of the track record and for him to wind up with a shorter deal than any of the upper-tier free agents this winter -- certainly Sabathia, but even Burnett, despite his issues, and Lowe, despite his age."
So where will Sheets wind up? When Sheets responded emotionally after the Brewers' playoff loss to Philadelphia, he appeared to be coming to grips with the realization that his days in Milwaukee were history. But Close and Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin are both keeping the door open for a return.
"We've had productive discussions with Milwaukee, and we haven't ruled them out as a suitor," Close said.
Melvin said Milwaukee's top priority is re-signing Sabathia, who is weighing a reported five-year, $100 million offer from the club. If the Brewers ultimately decide to make Sheets an offer, it won't be until after he goes out and tests the market.
"We've kept it open to let the process take place, and Casey and I will touch base later," Melvin said. "Whatever happens, we're not in a situation where we'll just take the money that we've [offered] to CC and put it into somebody else. We're treating CC as a special case."
Another possibility is Texas. Sheets lives in Dallas in the offseason and has a strong working relationship with Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, who just came over from Milwaukee a week ago. Texas needs to upgrade its rotation, and Maddux is a self-professed Sheets fan who has stayed in touch with the pitcher since the end of the season.
"I would love to have that guy on my team regardless of where I am," Maddux said in a phone interview.
One thing is a virtual certainty: Sheets' name will come up in conversation when Maddux meets with general manager Jon Daniels, assistant GM Thad Levine and the rest of the Texas front office Friday.
"I understand why general managers have concerns," Maddux said. "But as somebody who was close to him, you say, 'It's just a bump in the road.' A healthy Ben Sheets pays his dividends. He's pretty darned good. He started the All-Star Game, and that's not a mistake."
People close to Sheets say the Astros rank high on his wish list for several reasons: Sheets enjoys pitching in the National League; he's good friends with Oswalt; and Houston is close to his offseason home. But the Astros might not have the money to pursue him and could opt for a more payroll-friendly alternative, such as Randy Wolf.
The Cubs could also be in the mix, but only if they fail to trade for Jake Peavy or lose Dempster through free agency -- or both. The Mets, Yankees, Orioles and Dodgers are among the other clubs in search of starting pitching. But two years after investing $47 million in Jason Schmidt, the Dodgers' risk tolerance isn't especially high.
The ultimate question is, how bold are teams willing to be with a pitcher who has ace potential and six career DL visits? Burnett has several medical blips on his resume too, but he made 34 starts and threw 221 1/3 innings in Toronto this season. In contrast to Sheets, his timing is impeccable.
How will the job search turn out for the Gonzales Christmas Parade grand marshal? As free agent shopping season gets under way, it's time for Ben Sheets to buckle in and enjoy the ride. The parade of rumors, speculation and other twists and turns in his professional life has just begun.