So the Mets have signed Gary Sheffield.
My first reaction is to kick and scream and holler, because Sheffield is 40 years old and coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. To boot, he hasn't played defense regularly since 2005, spending most of 2006 on the disabled list and most of 2007 and 2008 as a designated hitter. `
But upon further investigation, signing Sheffield -- on paper, at least -- comes with very little downside for the Mets. Theoretically, he'll replace Marlon Anderson on the team's bench and share playing time with Ryan Church in right field. That should bring much-needed right-handed balance to the heavily lefty-hitting Mets, and Sheffield will have the opportunity to return to the form that made him one of the best hitters in baseball in his prime.
So if Jerry Manuel can balance playing time appropriately and keep everyone's egos in check, the only downside to taking a flyer on Sheffield -- since he'll cost the Major League minimum -- is the loss of Anderson. And considering Anderson got on base at a .255 clip with a .275 slugging percentage last year, that's probably addition by subtraction.
It's never that simple, though. I won't speak to what will inevitably follow in the papers about Sheffield, his explosive personality and its effects on clubhouse chemistry because I've always contended that there's far too much going on behind closed doors for anyone to diagnose precisely how one player might affect his teammates' on-field performances. Plus, chemistry is too easy to analyze post hoc. The Mets play well, we assume they get along. They play poorly, something must be wrong in the clubhouse. We've been through this.
What's actually troubling about adding Sheffield is the chance that the Mets will treat him like he's the player he was in 2000 instead of like the player he is in 2009. After all, according to all the reports, a big reason Sheffield favored the Mets over the Phillies was the promise of playing time. And if that cuts into at-bats that should go to young fan favorite Daniel Murphy, then who wants any part of this?
Not me. But if it comes down to taking a few at-bats against lefties from Church, then why not?
Maybe because of Fernando Tatis, the man previously slated to share time with Church. After all, Tatis posted a 123 OPS+ in 2008 to Sheffield's 90, is far more flexible defensively and is six years younger. Granted, comparing Tatis to Sheffield is not fair to either: Tatis enjoyed 273 good at-bats in a rebound season after three years out of baseball and two in the Minors; Sheffield struggled through 418 after a career marked by Hall of Fame-caliber numbers.
Tatis played four innings at second base Thursday, after which Manuel told reporters he'd be willing to start the 34-year-old over Luis Castillo against left-handed pitchers. File that away with things I'll believe when I see, but if Manuel can somehow manage to give Sheffield a fair look while keeping Tatis' bat in the lineup without sacrificing too much defense, he should be named Manager of the Year, or at the very least win a Nobel Prize.
Sheffield was a productive hitter as recently as 2007, when he hit 25 home runs and tallied a 120 OPS+ in his first year in Detroit. It's reasonable to expect that he could recapture some of that value switching to an easier league, given his long career of outstanding offense. Then again, he's 40, his performance is theoretically unenhanced and his numbers have been trending steadily downward since 2003, so it's just as reasonable to expect that he's finished.
It's an upside play with little or no risk, so ultimately, it's a good one. The gravy is that acquiring Sheffield means the Phillies can't, and say what you will about that steady decline in production, the sight of Sheffield in an opponent's on-deck circle, waving his bat around the way he does, would certainly strike fear into the heart of Mets fans and pitchers alike. He's probably even more fear-inducing than, I don't know, say, Marlon Anderson.
It just comes down to the length of the leash. If Sheffield works out, then great -- the Mets got a productive right-handed bat for nothing and can use their glut of outfielders to fill a need at the trade deadline. But if Sheffield doesn't work out, the team must be willing to cut him or his playing time instead of once again needlessly clinging to a player past his prime and without much to offer.