03/31/09 11:27 AM ET
Tigers release Sheffield
Longtime slugger let go by Detroit with 499 career home runs
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Not since his Major League career began, in 1988, has he had to ponder that. But given his unparalleled ability to make news over his career, it was fitting that he was the one left to deliver it.
"I just got released," Sheffield said.
With that decision from the Tigers, Sheffield's potential Hall of Fame career has a stunning new first. His 500th career home run will have to come somewhere else, if it comes at all. For now, he remains at 499.
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski explained the move as a way to get more versatility out of the designated hitter spot. It was the last possibility on Sheffield's mind as he walked into the home clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium before he was called into manager Jim Leyland's office.
"I never even really thought about it, to be honest with you," Sheffield said. "This is the last thing I thought would happen at this particular time."
The Tigers will owe Sheffield his guaranteed $14 million salary for this year. Team owner Mike Ilitch had to approve the move, Dombrowski confirmed. Assuming Sheffield clears the 48-hour waiver period unclaimed, he'll be free to sign with any team he chooses, with the signing team owing him only the minimum Major League salary.
Leyland and Dombrowski gave Sheffield the news together, citing the desire to rotate players around the DH spot and use it to keep some of their other sluggers in the lineup without them having to play the field every day. Though Sheffield has always seen himself as a capable outfielder since he arrived in Detroit from the Yankees after the 2006 season, the Tigers had no plans to use the 40-year-old anywhere other than DH.
"It kind of puts you in a box when you accept the DH role," Sheffield said.
The issue had always been a difference of opinion between player and team ever since Sheffield's arrival. On Tuesday, the Tigers' point of view was a big part of their reasoning behind the separation.
"Gary Sheffield is a probable Hall of Famer, and I think he should be a Hall of Famer," Dombrowski said. "He's had a tremendous career. But ... when we looked at our roster, it was hard to keep Marcus Thames and Gary Sheffield. We have a player in Marcus Thames that we think can be a productive hitter for us."
Thames had been a trade possibility, as well as the potential victim of a roster squeeze. Now, not only does Thames make the roster, he's in line to get the regular diet of at-bats that he has tried to earn for the last three years.
That didn't make parting ways with Sheffield any easier for Leyland, who managed Sheffield with the 1997 Marlins on their way to the World Series.
"This was eating at me all night long," said Leyland.
The final spot on the bench is now down to a competition between Jeff Larish, Ryan Raburn and Brent Clevlen, though Dombrowski did not rule out bringing in a player from elsewhere.
The DH role, meanwhile, will not be a full-time position for anybody the way it was with Sheffield. Instead, Leyland is expected to rotate players in and out, allowing Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera to get games there on occasion.
"It gives [Leyland] the flexibility to get those guys in the lineup when you don't want to have them in the field," Dombrowski said.
This was supposed to be the Spring Training when Sheffield showed how he can still hit when he's healthy. He ended last season with a relative power surge, homering six times in September and 11 times over the final two months after lingering pain in his surgically repaired shoulders hampered him for most of the year.
Sheffield hit .178 (8-for-45) this Spring Training with three home runs, two of them in one game. He drew 13 walks and struck out 10 times.
The injuries, unfortunately, will be a defining theme in Sheffield's two-year Tiger tenure. A collision with second baseman Placido Polanco in shallow right field during a July 2007 game against the Royals ended up hampering him for the rest of his time in Detroit.
"There's no regret," Sheffield said. "I got a chance to show people the first half [of 2007] when I got here. Up until that injury, I think I was leading the team in everything. You don't just go from that to a freak injury, and just think that you can overcome that.
"I still tried to play through it. It isn't like I just sat around and didn't do anything. I tried to play through it, which most players wouldn't have done, and I'm proud of that."
Now that he's healthy, Sheffield strongly believes that he can still play, and the Tigers don't challenge that. Sheffield also believes he could be an outfielder in the National League.
"I have a lot left. I know that," he said. "If one person doesn't think you can play in the field, that's their opinion. I know I can. Nobody understands my body better than me. Unfortunately, I got hurt here and wasn't able to show what I can really do. I fought real hard to get back to this point. I just feel like I've got more to give."
Sean Casey, who helped Detroit to its 2006 World Series appearance, said he was "shocked" about the Sheffield news. Casey, now retired and serving as an analyst for MLB Network, was asked about it during an MLB Network conference call discussing the coming season.
"I was shocked to see Sheff let go, especially with what they owe him and being one (homer) shy of 500," Casey said.
Sheffield has been on an Opening Day roster every year since 1989. Unless another team signs him in a hurry, that streak will end.
Asked how he was feeling after the news, Sheffield said that he didn't really know how to react. Still, he was very collected.
The shock was left for his teammates. As Sheffield talked with reporters, he shook hands with Cabrera when he arrived.
"I'll see you," Sheffield said.
"Where are you going?" Cabrera asked.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.