Injury rehab has Sheets optimistic

Injury rehab has Sheets optimistic

PHOENIX -- Ben Sheets is not ready to offer a ringing endorsement of his own health.

"I'm on track," the hyperactive and super-talented right-hander said as Brewers pitchers and catchers reported to camp this weekend. "But until I dig in against somebody, I don't know what track that is."

No one knows, and they might not get any answers for several weeks. Meanwhile, Sheets, who missed the final six weeks of 2005 with a torn latissimus dorsi muscle behind his right shoulder, continues to build strength for a club-record fifth straight Opening Day start.

Unfortunately, it's not the first time Sheets has reported to Maryvale Baseball Park sporting some bumps and bruises and question marks. One thing seems certain: If the Brewers are going to improve on their 81-81 mark last year and compete for their first postseason appearance in 24 years, they'll need a healthy ace.

"He knows that," said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who along with assistant GM Gord Ash, manager Ned Yost and owner Mark Attanasio, has infused optimism into a franchise that suffered 12 consecutive losing seasons before the 2005 breakthrough.

"Ben is not content with winning 11 or 12 games," Melvin said. "[Chris] Capuano won 18 games and I'm sure Sheets wants to have a year like that. We have better run support now then we've had in the past, so it's possible."

A lot of things seem possible in Milwaukee this summer. Capuano, Doug Davis, Tomo Ohka and either Rick Helling or Dave Bush would make a solid starting rotation, and the team has an experienced and productive outfield to go with a young and promising infield.

There are questions, for sure. That fifth starter spot is up for grabs, and there are the usual bullpen and bench spots to fill. But the biggest unknown may be Sheets, both because of his talent and his price tag.

Including a portion of his signing bonus from the record-setting contract extension he inked last April, Sheets will earn about $11.5 million this season -- by far the biggest salary in Brewers history. He will account for about a fifth of the team's total payroll, expected to hover in the $50 million range.

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"There are a lot of wild cards that go into the Wild Card, one of which is health," Attanasio said. "If we can stay healthy and our players can all have years like they are capable of having, I think we're going to be very competitive."

So far, so good. Sheets passed on a chance to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but he has pitched two bullpen sessions at Maryvale Baseball Park with no setbacks.

Sheets has been at the core of the club's building project since 1999, when the Brewers selected him in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft. He was an All-Star as a rookie in 2001 but elevated to stardom in 2004, posting a 2.70 ERA and a franchise-record 264 strikeouts, tops among Major League right-handers.

But that was also the first season Sheets experienced vestibular neuritis, a rare inner-ear condition that throws off one's balance and awareness. The ailment struck again in 2005, just days after Sheets signed a four-year, $38.5 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in team history.

The latest bout was much more serious. Sheets spent two days in a Houston hospital and missed about five weeks of action. At times, he was so dizzy he needed help to walk through the clubhouse.

"I can't do anything about it," he says now. "I hope it [doesn't] come back, and I guess if there is a chance that if it comes back, it is just a four- or five-day one. I've talked to some guys who have had it and that's the case. And some guys say there are some years they don't get it at all. I don't know."

He visited a doctor in Los Angeles before the start of Spring Training and was given a clean bill of health. The few studies on vestibular neuritis say it is often precipitated by illness, so Sheets' health will be constantly monitored and he likely will receive flu and allergy shots.

"That's the big thing -- if he has any kind of cold or congestion, he has to get on medication quick," Melvin said.

Sheets recovered from the inner-ear ailment and quickly returned to form. From July 30 to Aug. 20, he pitched nine innings in four of five starts, calling that streak "not the best I've ever felt but the best results I've ever got."

He was working on a shutout into the eighth inning Aug. 26 against the Braves at Miller Park. With two outs, Sheets bounced an 0-2 pitch behind Chipper Jones and grabbed the back of his right shoulder. It was his last pitch of a disappointing season.

"But you know what? I don't want to ever miss a day, but if I don't blow out my 'lat' [muscle] at the end of the year, I get to 200 innings and I'm happy. It's not the way you want to draw it up, but I feel like through the years I've given us innings."

Sheets has pitched at least 150 innings and won at least 10 games in each of his five Brewers seasons. But he has never won more than 12 games in a year, a streak he and the Brewers hope will snap in 2006.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.