He was not only under the radar, but off the radar. The last time he had pitched in the Majors was 2010. The last time he had pitched in the Majors with consistent success was 2008.
Two torn flexor tendons had cost Sheets more than two seasons. Those injuries and earlier injury problems had placed him in the often-injured category. But all of this ignored what an outstanding pitcher Sheets had been earlier in his career.
So credit Braves general manager Frank Wren and his staff with seeing that a healthy Sheets could be that good again. The sample size is small, but for an Atlanta rotation with three starters on the disabled list, Sheets has been something very much like the ideal replacement.
In five starts, Sheets is 4-1 with a 1.41 ERA. In two of those starts, he has given up no runs. In two others, he has given up one run. If he is not throwing in the mid-to-high 90s as he once did, he still has his trademark, devastating curveball, a persistent ability to command the strike zone and a determined, competitive approach.
At 34 and well-rested, it is obviously not too late for Sheets to recover his career. It was a substantial career, even though, for a number of reasons, it probably didn't get its due during its earlier phase.
Sheets, a first-round Draft choice in 1999, received a reasonable amount of fanfare at the beginning of his career. As member of the United States baseball team at the 2000 Summer Olympics, he won the game that gave the U.S. the gold medal. But he subsequently had the misfortune of spending some of his prime seasons with substandard Milwaukee Brewers teams.
In 2004, for instance, Sheets had an ERA of 2.70, a WHIP of 0.98 and an epic strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.25. But all of that netted him a 12-14 record.
By 2008, the Brewers had become contenders. With their July acquisition of CC Sabathia from Cleveland, they believed they had, in Sabathia and Sheets, the kind of one-two rotation combination that could carry them deep into the postseason. Sheets was so impressive in the first half of 2008 that he was named the starting pitcher for the National League All-Star team.
But he did not win a game after Sept. 6, and due to injury, he was unable to pitch in the postseason. The Brewers were eliminated in the NL Division Series by the Phillies, the eventual World Series winners, and Sheets was denied the postseason acclaim that his ability deserved.
He sat out 2009, and then signed an atypically hefty $10 million contract with the Oakland Athletics. That didn't work out, either, as injury ended his season in July, limiting him to 20 starts in '10.
Sheets' current price represents a deep discount from that level and limited exposure for the Braves. They will pay him a little more than $1 million in base salary for 2 1/2 months of Major League work this season.
Given Sheets' injury history, there will be continuing questions about his durability. Those questions will be answered on a start-by-start basis. What he has already established is his ability to pitch with extreme effectiveness. This is no particular fluke. This is what Sheets has been during his career, when healthy.
The Braves subsequently bolstered their rotation further in a trade with the Cubs for veteran lefty Paul Maholm. That deal cost the Braves two pitching prospects, including one of their best, hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino.
Maholm should help solidify the rotation, but the acquisition of Sheets could be the big difference-maker for the Braves. With much of the baseball world searching for starting-pitching help before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Braves made a major move without mortgaging their future or taking on a financial burden. The signing of Sheets did not appear to be the most likely move, but for a Braves team currently leading the NL Wild card race, it may turn out to be one of the most astute midseason pitching acquisitions.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.