Mets add 'historic bat' in Sheffield
Manuel, Minaya envision veteran slugger playing every day
NEW YORK -- Earlier this week, back in Florida, Carlos Beltran was watching the news of Gary Sheffield's release on a clubhouse television when his manager, Jerry Manuel, sidled up to him and asked what he thought.
Beltran replied that he knew Sheffield was a powerful hitter and a borderline Hall of Famer, but that he didn't know him personally.
Manuel, a coach of Sheffield during his time with the Marlins, said that he did.
Now, Sheffield is a Met.
"I guess he wanted him to be part of our ballclub," Beltran said.
The Mets and Sheffield agreed to terms on a contract Friday afternoon, giving the club the type of power from the right side that it had been seeking for some time. Sheffield will play right field on what Manuel hopes will be a regular basis, potentially supplanting Ryan Church for the starting job.
Sheffield will report to Citi Field in time for the second of two exhibition games against the Red Sox on Saturday.
It is a calculated risk for a 40-year-old slugger who has not played the outfield regularly in three seasons, but who claims he still has the skills to do so. It is a deal for a player who possesses one of the game's most violent swings, along with one of its most controversial personalities. It is a risk, for certain, but one that the Mets felt comfortable taking.
"From the years of Dwight Gooden, he's always wanted to play for the Mets," general manager Omar Minaya said. "He's happy that he's with us."
Happy, too, is Manuel, bench coach for a 1997 Marlins team that won the World Series featuring Sheffield in the middle of their lineup. Manuel characterized Sheffield as "a quiet leader" who is every bit as powerful as his 499 career home runs might indicate.
"I do think that's an addition when you can add that type of historic bat," Manuel said. "That's a tremendous acquisition for a dominant left-handed-hitting team, which is what we are. You know in the past years, we've looked extensively for that right-handed hitter. And if he can be close, or some degree of what he's been, that could be a tremendous, tremendous help for us."
Earlier this week, Manuel spoke with Detroit manager Jim Leyland, with the intention of finding out precisely why the Tigers would eat $14 million in order to release such a hitter. Keeping consistent with what he told the Detroit media, Leyland said that Sheffield's role as an exclusive designated hitter handicapped his lineup flexibility, preventing him from resting other players in the DH spot.
Yet the Mets don't have a DH playing in the National League. Realizing that, Manuel said he planned to work Sheffield back into outfield shape in the coming weeks, then insert him into a corner outfield spot -- almost certainly right field. If he takes to it, then Sheffield could force Church out of the playing time that he once expected.
"It's only obvious what's planned," Church said.
Given Manuel's stated preference to give Daniel Murphy -- a defensive liability while he learns to play left field -- as many at-bats as possible, starting Sheffield would admittedly weaken the team's outfield defense. To some degree, it would also negate the role of Fernando Tatis, a powerful right-handed bat but a below-average defender at the corner outfield positions.
The Mets will also have to find room on their 25-man roster for Sheffield. The quick and easy solution would be to demote Nick Evans to the Minor Leagues -- when the Mets need a fifth starter, Evans was likely to return there anyway. But eventually, they will need to cut another player.
Pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson would seem to be the most likely choice, despite his status as the top left-handed hitter off the bench. If Church is also on the bench, that wouldn't be a problem. But one team source also said that the club is considering carrying only 11 pitchers.
Either way, the move will affect Church, who was to start regularly in right field after missing much of last season with post-concussion syndrome. Church stumbled into a minor controversy earlier this offseason, when Manuel said that he considered Murphy a better hitter, and that he envisioned a platoon of Church and Tatis in right -- words that he rescinded the next day.
Yet regardless of what the Mets think of him, Church now stands to lose playing time.
"I can't control any of what they do," Church said. "I'm in here thinking I'm in the lineup, and if not, I'll be ready to come off the bench."
Sheffield, meanwhile, comes complete with his own set of risks. A polarizing figure, Sheffield has made news for getting into a verbal altercation with a fan in Boston in 2005, and for saying that he thought then-Yankees manager Joe Torre treated black and white players differently.
Sheffield also admitted to unknowingly using a cream that contained steroids in 2002, and was mentioned in Sen. George Mitchell's 2007 report regarding performance-enhancing substances in baseball.
Regardless, various Mets players said that Sheffield has a reputation as a fine teammate.
"He's a great guy," said Livan Hernandez, who played with Sheffield on the Marlins. "He's a great person. He plays hard every day. That's what I know."
"I've heard great things," third baseman David Wright said. "All the players that have played with him speak very highly of him. I'm sure we're going to welcome him. He's going to be a tremendous addition. He's a guy that just has a presence to him."
On the field, there are far fewer question marks. Despite his release, Sheffield can still hit. He claims he can still field -- and the Mets are about to find out. In a lineup that features left-handed hitters Carlos Delgado, Church and Murphy, and switch-hitters Beltran and Jose Reyes, Sheffield can provide power from the right side. And that, according to the Mets, is worth the risk.
"I know that when I'm playing third base, I back up about 10 feet every time he comes to the plate," Wright said. "That's all that I need to know. He hits the ball extremely hard, and I think he's got plenty more left."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.