Gary Sheffield has had what should be a Hall of Fame career. In 2,417 games over 21 seasons, he is batting .294 with 2,564 hits and 485 homers. He has a lifetime OBP of .395, a .517 slugging percentage and a 142 OPS+. He has also played in nine all-star games and has finished in the top ten in MVP voting 7 times.
When the Tigers acquired Sheffield for three pitching prospects immediately after the 2006 season, they hoped that he would be the middle of the order hitter which they lacked in the second half of the season. They immediately signed him to a two year $28 million extension through 2009. After a slow start in April, 2007, he was one of the hottest hitters in the league for the next couple of months. His batting line for the first half of the season was .303/.410/.560.
However, he injured his shoulder in an outfield collision on July 21, 2007 and has not been the same since. He batted a woeful .203/.324/.299 after the all-star break last year. Off-season surgery does not seem to have helped much as he is batting .217/.323/.338 in 55 games this year. After spending time on the disabled list with an oblique strain , he appeared to be the Sheffield of old in a series versus the Cardinals lashing line drives all over the park for six hits and two homers including a walk off. It was short lived however and he is currently mired in an 8 for 49 slump with one extra base hit since June 26.
The former all-star appears to be pretty much done but his contract is not. None of the pitchers they traded for him has reached the majors and they don't appear to be headed towards great careers. The problem is Sheffield is owed about $20 million through the end of this year and next making it hard to release him or even bench him. He has been rested a couple of times recently with more time going to Matt Joyce, Clete Thomas, Marcus Thames and Jeff Larish. Joyce, Thomas, Thames and Ryan Raburn for that matter are all hitting considerably better than the 39 year old Sheffield but Gary is still the designated hitter most days and there has been no indication that this is going to change any time soon.
With Magglio Ordonez coming off the disabled list after the all-star break, the outfield/designated positions will become even more crowd. If he continues to struggle as he has, how long can they stay patient when superior options are available? The loyal Jim Leyland tends to stay faithful to his veterans through tough periods and there is the feeling among some that the Tigers will not be a serious contender down the stretch unless Sheffield gets hot. However, his problems have been going on for a year now and it is becoming increasingly apparent that he has little left in the tank.
What can they do? I think it's pretty clear that they won't be able to trade him. Would they release him? It's easy for fans to talk about cutting losses and dumping his salary but not so easy for Mike Illitch and Dave Dombrowski. I think he'll get more days off down the stretch but I don't think he'll be going away this year.
What about next year? Is it possible that he'll retire after the season? Not too many players walk away from $14 million so I don't know how likely that is. It would certainly help the Tigers if they could use that money to get some pitching help. Regardless, unless he suddenly finds himself down the stretch this year, I can't see the Tigers bringing him back next year. Playing out the end of a disappointing season is one thing but bringing him back to start a fresh new season is another.
For now though, I think we'll be watching Sheffield a little longer.