PEORIA, Ariz. – Perhaps years from now, if his potential turns into production, it will be this anecdotal offering that helps outline the reasons for his success.
It’s not an uncommon story in baseball, a sport in which failure is found far easier than success on a daily basis. A touted prospect struggles to live up to lofty expectations and is demoted to fix what is broken, remembers what made him successful, restores his confidence and resumes his progression back to the big leagues where he remains for the rest of his career.
For Justus Sheffield, the ending to his tale has yet to be written. He’s experienced only the struggles and the setback. But the Mariners hope, and he said he believes, that the rest will begin to fall into place this season.
“Not very many players get to stay in the big leagues without some trip back to the minor leagues to reposition and move forward again,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “I wouldn’t qualify this as a year where he really has to put up. But this is a year I’m sure that he will tell you that he really wants to get over that hump and turn into a consistent big-leaguer.”
Indeed, Sheffield has expectations for this season and they don’t include a return trip to Class AAA. He comes into spring training with a guaranteed spot in the opening-day starting rotation and he wants to stay there. Given the team’s plan to play young prospects and exercise patience with their performance, he doesn’t have to panic about being sent down. He just has to pitch to his talent level.
“I feel like every year there is a step forward, but mainly it’s this year,” Sheffield said. “I’m looking forward to going out there and competing, changing this thing around and moving forward.”
If he ever doubts his ability to do that, the Mariners want him to look back on his outing against the Cubs on Sept. 2 at Wrigley Field. Facing a lineup with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Nicholas Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, Sheffield tossed five shutout innings, allowing five hits with two walks and seven strikeouts. It was his best outing at the MLB level. He showed a nasty slider, harnessed his sinking fastball and flashed a good change-up.
“Against those hitters, to do what he did, take that experience and remember how good he can be in the moment,” Dipoto said. “His major-league performance to date has been a very small sample. But when he was clicking on all cylinders and he was throwing the ball where he wants to, the stuff is electric. We’ve seen it in two- and three-inning spurts.”
But there has to be more of it going forward.
When Sheffield was acquired last offseason in the trade that sent James Paxton to the Yankees, he was viewed as the key piece for the Mariners. Given his talent and his progression through the minor leagues to that point, the expectation was that Sheffield would be in the rotation by the middle of last season, gaining experience to help lead and accelerate Seattle’s rebuild plan.
Instead, he found himself in the sweltering summer heat of Little Rock, Ark., searching for what he’d lost in the 2½ frustrating months for AAA Tacoma. After posting a 2-6 record for Tacoma and 6.87 ERA in 13 appearances with a whopping 41 walks and just 48 strikeouts in 55 innings, Sheffield was showing minimal fastball command and little efficiency in his outings. The Mariners had to make a change. They decided to send Sheffield to AA Arkansas to reset everything.
At the time, it seemed like a major setback for the Mariners’ step back. Though the Mariners obviously didn’t buy into that perception.
“Last year, when he was struggling, the easiest thing for you to train your eye on was his age,” Dipoto said of Sheffield, who was 23 at the time. “Even by the standards of pitchers in Triple A, he was young. We need to remember that.”
The Mariners met with Sheffield to outline why they were making the move and what they’d hoped for him to accomplish.
“If it was tough, it was tough for us, not tough for Sheff,” Dipoto said. “We explained to him it was the right thing to do. The hit to the ego would have been for us because we were looking so forward to see him bust through and it took more time than we expected.”
Given his status as a prospect and the expectations, it would’ve been understandable for Sheffield to need at least a few days to remove the disappointment and frustration. Instead, he chose to embrace it.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “I will continue to fight. I’m never going to back down from any challenge or any obstacle that’s in my way. Baseball is a game of failure and I understand it. I just have to be able to move forward through the bad times and live for those high ones.”
His first conversation with Pete Woodworth, Arkansas’ pitching coach at the time and the Mariners pitching coach this season, was memorable.
“When guys get demoted, there’s usually a couple of days that they need to decompress and swallow what has just happened,” Woodworth said. “Sheffield showed up the first day and was so excited to get to work. As soon as he left the office after the first meeting, me and the manager looked at each other like, ‘That was not what we were expecting.’ He came in with the right mindset and immediately jumped into the culture that we had there.”
Sheffield re-established himself with the Travelers. In 12 starts, he posted a 5-3 record with a 2.19 ERA with 85 strikeouts and just 18 walks in 78 innings.
“Most of his work was on the mental side,” Woodworth said. “We didn’t do a ton physical. He’s good. He’s talented and has elite stuff. Most of it was getting it back to knowing who he was, getting his confidence back and throwing his stuff over the plate.”
It was a quick process.
“And I was like, ‘Why, what, how did this guy not give you a lot in Tacoma?’ ” Woodworth said. “But I’m kind of excited that it happened for him, the adversity that he went through and really learning how to deal with that. He learned a lot in the process.”
That attitude didn’t go unnoticed.
“He handled it as maturely as you could possible handle it and didn’t pout even for a moment,” Dipoto said. “He went down there, attacked and was roughly awesome from the time he stepped on a mound.”
The success led Sheffield back to the big leagues in August and that’s where the Mariners expect him to remain moving forward.
“As they should, as anyone should,” he said. “Everyone should have the sense of responsibility of going out there and proving what they can do. I’m looking forward to doing that this year.”