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40 in 40: Justus Sheffield

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Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth. Age is an honor, it’s still not the truth.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Mariners/Twitter

For decades, Mariner fans have been doomed to a life of unrequited love. The fluky nature of the game is one of MLB’s calling cards, yet the positive aspects of that have veered away from the Pacific Northwest for nearly two decades. More than any other major sport, baseball operates under a constant cloud of randomness, with worst-to-first stories and truly underwhelming playoff runs happening on the regular. Everyone from the richer-than-God Dodgers to the penniless Rays, the annoyingly consistent Cardinals to the just-became-hot Astros have made the World Series since the M’s last postseason appearance.

It’s been hard. It’s been trying. It’s felt confusing and complicated. It’s even bordered on unfair. But now, finally, Justus has arrived.

The consensus top pitching prospect in the Mariners’ organization—and one of the best in the game, period—Justus Sheffield brings his left-handed arsenal to Seattle after being part of his second blockbuster trade. Originally a first-round draft pick of Cleveland in 2014, Sheffield and Clint Frazier went to the Yankees two years later in exchange for Andrew Miller, a deal that propelled Cleveland to an American League pennant.

As a freshly-minted 20-year-old, Sheffield ended the 2016 season with six games in the Yankees’ low levels. 2017, his first full season in junior pinstripes, was spent primarily with the Double-A Trenton Thunder, as well as two rehab starts in rookie ball following a minor oblique strain. While his strikeout numbers suffered in Double-A, the Tennessee native seemed to hone the finer points of pitching during that 2017 campaign. Sheffield cut his walk rate significantly in 17 starts for the Thunder while also making slight improvements to his groundball rate and strike percentage. People began to take notice of the shorty’s stuff that year, as he appeared on Baseball Prospectus’ Midseason Top 50 prospects list.

Five more tune-ups in Trenton to begin 2018 pushed Sheffield into Triple-A, where he stamped a gorgeous 2.56 ERA onto his pretty prospect pedigree. His final line as a 2018 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRider (88 innings, 84 K/36 BB, 1.16 WHIP, 3.13 FIP, 8.59 K/9, .203 opponents’ batting average), signaled his readiness for the spotlight. The latest prize pig on the Mariners’ farm has already put spikes to a big-league mound too, getting three bullpen calls from Aaron Boone last September.

At just 22 years young, Sheffield brings the ideal mix of youth, talent, and club control to a now-promising minor league crop. When his acquisition was announced, Jerry Dipoto lobbed effusive praise atop Sheffield’s 5’10”, 195 lb. body.

“To add three dynamic athletes who are entering the prime of their respective careers, while also maintaining six seasons of club control for each, is very exciting,” Dipoto said of Sheffield and fellow pickups Dom Thompson-Williams and Erik Swanson. “Justus Sheffield has an unquestionable prospect pedigree. With a combination of high-end velocity to go along with an advanced slider and a developing changeup, we think Justus has a chance to pitch at the upper portion of our rotation soon.”

About that slider, it’s devilish. With late break and a velocity in the high-80s, the pitch could leave right-handed hitters pondering a career change. Paired with a fastball that can touch 97, Sheffield’s breaking pitch looks both deceptive and effective.

The chief concern with Sheffield is his height, or rather his lack thereof. Measuring under six feet and 200 pounds, the diminutive lefty has a disparate body type to James Paxton, the man he was traded for. Despite its somewhat outdated logic, the puny pitcher concern is still enough to create doubters in the Justus system, to some merit. The list of six-foot or shorter starting pitchers to post a four-WAR season in the last 25 years includes some Hall of Fame demigods (Glavine, Maddux, Pedro), some Cy Youngs and All-Stars (Bartolo Colón, Johnny Cueto, Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana), some guys who aged like milk (Henderson Álvarez, Mike Hampton, Ian Kennedy, Shaun Marcum), and a few people who were surely industry plants (Francisco Córdova, Rick Reed, José Rosado). While a track record of success is there, so is an extremely high variance. Such is the nature of pitchers, especially prospects, and really, 22-year-olds in general.

Hard as it may be, the key to properly evaluating Sheffield is probably to grade him on a different rubric than Paxton. Yes, Pax was responsible for many of the best moments of the Dipoto era and is the direct reason why Sheffield is here now. But Paxton only became the fearsome ace that he is today after 50 or so MLB starts, a laundry list of injuries, and occasional spells of mediocrity. Tempered expectations often produce the least-upsetting results, and this is not the year to put the weight of a franchise on a young player.

Take a deep breath, understand that like six pitchers ever have become immediate sensations, and let Justus figure his shit out. It won’t happen overnight, and the first part of it will likely happen in Tacoma. If watching the Rainiers isn’t your preferred baseball experience, at least check out Sheffield’s Instagram, where our short, thicc king is already showing off his playful side.

Here he is dripping head-to-toe in immaculate velvet.

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Tracksuit Travel Day #JordanVelvetSuadeTypeIsh

A post shared by Justus Sheffield (@justus_sheffield) on

Here he is being an adorable child of the 1990s.

And finally, here he is questioning his mother’s child-crafting process, while introducing the only hashtag that matters.