Justus Sheffield was the first of several top-100 prospects acquired by the Seattle Mariners last offseason. Unfortunately, his introduction to the Mariners and the team’s fan base has been tumultuous and disappointing. Still, all Sheffield may need is time to prove himself.
Sheffield began this season with Class-AAA Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League and appeared destined to join the Mariners by the All-Star break. But those plans cratered once the 23-year-old’s control abandoned him. With the Rainiers and during one April appearance with Seattle, he walked 45 hitters in 58 innings equating to a whopping 7.0 BB/9.
Eventually, the Mariners dispatched Sheffield to Class-AA Arkansas hoping to reboot their prized pitching prospect. A segment of fans viewed the move as a demotion. Others saw an act of desperation from an organization saddled with a history of failing to develop and/or acquire quality prospects. But Seattle’s strategy made sense.
The PCL is notoriously hitter-friendly, but particularly so this season thanks to the use of the same juiced balls found in MLB. Expecting a struggling pitching prospect to find himself in such a hostile environment is impractical – even for an athlete as talented as Sheffield.
With the Travelers, Sheffield regained his mojo posting a 2.18 ERA in 12 starts. More importantly, he held opponents to a .263 OBP by averaging 2.1 BB/9. Once again, the southpaw was flashing the potential that compelled Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto to swap ace James Paxton with the Yankees for New York’s top prospect.
That brings us to the now.
Sheffield has two starts with the big league club since his August 23 return with the box scores for both outings screaming sub-optimal. His first outing against the Toronto Blue Jays resembled his April effort with Seattle – three walks and seven hits in four innings.
Next time out, Sheffield faced his former club with seemingly worse results. He surrendered five runs, including two home runs, in 4.1 innings against the Yankees. The homer hit by former battery-mate Gary Sanchez barely missed becoming the first-ever to leave T-Mobile Park. Still, there were positive takeaways from the outing.
While surrendering five runs before the game was official is always bad, Sheffield struck out five Yankees, including Sanchez, Brett Gardner, and Gio Urshela consecutively in the fourth inning. Even more impressive considering his history – zero walks.
Sure, Sheffield coughed up six hits, including the two homers. But New York’s lineup has been steamrolling pitchers all season averaging nearly six runs scored/game. Exhibiting better command of the strike zone is a positive development – especially against a juggernaut offense.
So what’s a reasonable approach to take regarding Sheffield’s progress?
Relax; give the kid time to get his feet under him.
What Sheffield has done during his extremely young big-league career means very little to his long-term outlook. The rookie wouldn’t be the first pitcher to struggle early before enjoying a long, productive career.
Far from it.
To demonstrate this point, let’s compare Sheffield to a variety of pitchers with similarly slow beginnings. There were numerous candidates, who eventually found their niche in the majors after struggling early.
The stats for the players we’ll be discussing occurred within their first two seasons. For some, their first year. Others, like Sheffield, accrued the stats over the span of two campaigns. All are recognizable names from this century with the exception of one Mariner hurler from the Nineties.
As we continue, please remember these comps won’t prove Sheffield is a future star or anything else. But they should help calm the nerves of anxious Mariners fans – at least for now.
Hampton began his professional career when Seattle selected him in the sixth round of the 1990 draft. The left-hander’s time with the Mariners didn’t last long though. After an inauspicious debut season, the team traded him with Mike Felder to the Houston Astros for Eric Anthony.
With the 1999 Astros, Hampton was NL Cy Young Award runner-up, a Silver Slugger awardee, and an All-Star. By the time his career ended with the Atlanta Braves in 2010, he started 355 games during 16 big-league seasons.
Bosio was a product of the Milwaukee Brewers system, but spent the last four campaigns of his 11-year MLB career with the Mariners. In his first season with Seattle, the right-hander threw the second complete game no-hitter in franchise history in April 1993.
I Know Those Guys
Here’s a small cross-section of familiar names from this century with varying levels of big-league success after rocky starts.
Justin Verlander is the most notable name and a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer. Yet, Verlander didn’t impress Detroit fans with his less-than-stellar production during two starts in 2005. The Old Dominion alum later made amends winning a Cy Young Award and league MVP as a Tiger and subsequently an ALCS MVP and World Series title with Houston.
Verlander’s former teammate – Robbie Ray – also stunk during his Motor City debut in 2014. But the 27-year-old turned a corner with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017, earning an All-Star selection and leading the NL with 12.1 SO/9. Ray recently ascended to staff ace status after the club traded Zack Greinke to the Astros.
Right-hander Carlos Carrasco got off to a terrible start with the Indians in 2009, but matured into a vital contributor to his team’s rotation. So much so, Cleveland signed the Venezuelan to a four-year/$47 million extension last offseason. Most importantly, Carrasco is courageously battling leukemia. In fact, he just rejoined his team for its postseason chase.
Appier finished top-3 in 1993 AL Cy Young and MVP voting. Lilly was a two-time All-Star, while Hammel started 30 regular season games for the 2016 Chicago Cubs team that won the World Series.
Okay, one last comp.
It’s been over three decades since potential Hall of Famer Curt Schilling made his MLB debut. So, it’s understandable if fans forget – or never realized – Schilling took several years to become an established big-league starter.
While Sheffield’s path to the majors is vastly different from Schilling’s, their beginnings have several statistical similarities.
Schilling began his 20-year career with the Baltimore Orioles in 1988 shuttling between the majors and minors as a reliever. The right-hander eventually filled the same role with Houston until the Philadelphia Phillies acquired him in 1992. From there, he thrived.
Philadelphia installed Schilling into their rotation providing him with the opportunity to earn the reputation as one of the greatest postseason pitchers ever. The six-time All-Star was the 1993 NLCS MVP with Philadelphia. He later won World Series titles with the Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox and was MVP of the 2001 Fall Classic.
Now, I’m not suggesting Sheffield someday leads the Mariners to a World Series title donning a bloody sock. But Schilling’s saga emphasizes the need for patience when assessing young, talented prospects.
Some players reach the majors and immediately blossom, although that’s not the norm. The pitchers we discussed today are prime examples of sluggish beginners – so is Mike Trout.
The future Hall of Famer slashed .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances during his first audition with the Los Angeles Angels. Eventually, he turned out to be okay. Wouldn’t you agree?
The difficult beginnings of the veterans we’ve discussed should serve as a reminder to Mariners fans eagerly awaiting their team’s youth movement to kick into high gear. A rookie’s hot start or troubled debut has no bearing on their long-term value – results over a sustained period do.
Keep this in mind if the current struggles of newcomer Jake Fraley continue into September. The same goes for Braden Bishop, Shed Long, and perhaps Justin Dunn whether they stumble or look like studs during the last month of the season.
There will be time down the road to make concrete assessments about the Mariners’ stable of young prospects, but that time is not now. Not for Sheffield and any other player.
In the interim, I suggest enjoying the kids prove they belong in the big leagues with the Mariners or another organization.
That’s what I’m planning to do.
My Oh My….