It's not easy to admit you were wrong.
It's not easy, even when the numbers are staring you right in the face. It's not easy, not when the mistake was yours.
So good for the Tigers, who released Gary Sheffield this morning, despite the $14 million remaining on his contract. Good for the Tigers, who never planned to keep Dontrelle Willis on their roster, despite the $22 million left on his contract. Willis went on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder, but DL or no DL, he wasn't going to be on this team.
We can't give general manager Dave Dombrowski and his staff too much credit, since they were the ones who signed Sheffield and Willis to the toxic contracts in the first place. But as Sparky Anderson always used to say: "You've already made the first mistake. Don't make the second mistake."
Among the many things that went wrong for the Tigers in 2008, one of the biggest was their insistence on sticking with big-money players who didn't deserve it. Sheffield got 418 at-bats despite his .225 average and .400 slugging percentage. Willis was somehow allowed to start seven games, when he barely earned the right to start one.
By sending them out there, day after day, management gave the rest of the players the impression that contracts mattered more than giving the team the best chance to win.
The Tigers said it would be different this year, but many teams say it'll be different. Now, at least, the Tigers have taken a step (or a step and a half) towards proving they meant what they said.
Think of it this way: Would you rather give at-bats to Sheffield, who showed no signs this spring that he was better than he was last year, or to Marcus Thames, who hit six more home runs than Sheffield in 2008, in 102 fewer at-bats (and who is eight years younger)? Would you rather give innings to Willis or to big-time prospect Rick Porcello?
General manager Dave Dombrowski and his staff still get the blame for wasting $28 million on Sheffield's November 2006 contract extension (for which they got 19 home runs and 57 RBIs). They get the blame for spending $29 million on Willis (for which they have zero wins) and $21.25 million on Nate Robertson (so far, seven wins).
But they also get some credit for admitting a mistake.
It's not easy to dispose of toxic assets. And the Tigers did it, we have to assume, without any government help.
Sheffield will likely get another chance, especially since a team can sign him for the major-league minimum. It's hard to imagine him playing for a National League team, since he can't play the outfield and has never been a pinch hitter. Even the Phillies, who have been looking all spring for a right-handed hitter, would be a stretch, although general manager Ruben Amaro told MLB.com that the team has been in contact with Sheffield's representatives.
Sheffield would be a better fit for an AL team, although it would have to be one that isn't already set at designated hitter.
"I would think he can hit .250," said one scout who watched him regularly this spring. "He tries to pull everything, and he's up there swinging for the fences. He's more of a mistake hitter now. But I don't see his bat falling off the face of the earth the way his defense did."
One side note on the Tigers' release of Sheffield. It means that the Tigers still won't have ever had a player hit his 500th home run while wearing their uniform.
Sheffield, who has 499 home runs, would have been the first.
The Tigers' all-time leader in home runs is Al Kaline, who finished with 399. Eddie Mathews, who had 512 career homers, played for the Tigers at the end of his career, but hit No. 500 as a member of the Astros.