Inside Baseball: Is Justus Sheffield the next David Price?

On Tuesday, Yankees GM Brian Cashman announced that prized prospect Justus Sheffield (ranked No. 1 in the Yankees system and no. 27 overall by MLB Pipeline), was moving to the bullpen in Triple-A in preparation for a September call-up. Once the calendar turns to September, the Yankees, like every MLB team, can recall any player on their 40-man roster.  Sheffield is already on that list and it appears the Yankees intend to bring him up, throw him into some high-leverage situations and see how he fares. If all goes well, it is certainly possible that Sheffield will be added to the Yankees bullpen for the postseason, where he will look to emulate another talented lefty who debuted 10 years ago.

Much like Sheffield, David Price was a highly touted prospect.  As the number one overall pick of the 2007 draft, Price had a meteoric rise to the big leagues.  In 2008, his only season in the minor leagues, Price jumped from High-A, to AA, then Triple-A.  His overall record? 12-1. Earned runs allowed in 19 starts within across those three levels only added up to a total of 28. Opponents batting average as left-handed hitters against him? A measly .198. Against righties, batters hit just .231. He was truly dominant. And that is why, on September 14, 2008, at the age of 23, David Price made his major league debut (ironically enough, against the Yankees).

From there, Price was on his way. Added to the Rays postseason roster, he was stellar, allowing only one earned over 5.2 innings, while recording eight strikeouts, giving up a total of two hits and earning the save in the Rays ALCS Game 7 clincher against the Red Sox.  Despite the Rays losing to the Phillies in the World Series, they knew that they had their future ace and one of the most dominant starting pitchers of the last decade. And the transition was made to bring Price into the starting rotation and have him become the leader of the Rays staff.

Now back to Sheffield, who himself is just 22, a former first round pick and a prospect that has seen his value increase significantly over the last two years.  Acquired in the Andrew Miller trade with the Indians, Sheffield has not had an ERA during any minor league stop above 3.59 (he did post a 4.79 ERA in the Arizona Fall League in 2014). His minor league numbers are stellar: a 35-24 record, an overall ERA of 3.10 and an average of more strikeouts per innings pitched (502/482.2). In 2018, Sheffield has firmly placed himself in the conversation for the September call-up. Despite a 6-6 record between AA and Triple-A, his ERA is 2.52, with a WHIP of 1.16 and, again, he is averaging more strikeouts than innings pitched. 

The key stat for this conversation, however, is matching Sheffield up against some of the big left-handed bats in the postseason. Whether it is Andrew Benintendi, Matt Olson, Dee Gordon, Yonder Alonso or another solid left-handed hitter, that is the likely high-leverage spot Sheffield will be called upon to navigate. In 2018, opponents are hitting a microscopic .142 against him, with 42 strikeouts in 113 at-bats. Even more, of the 16 hits against him by left-handed hitters, only three are extra base hits. Three out of 113 at-bats. In the postseason, where runs are at a premium, Sheffield can certainly be a weapon.  And that is where the Yankees hope the David Price comparisons stop.

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Over his first six seasons in the big leagues, Price was a five-time All-Star, Cy Young Award winner (with two runner-ups), led the league in innings pitched twice and established himself as a star.  Twice acquired by teams looking to add an ace at the trade deadline, Price was key to getting the Tigers and Blue Jays into the postseason. Despite his stellar career record of 140-74, with a 3.26 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, the postseason has become Price's bugaboo. Outside of his performance with the Rays out of the bullpen in 2008, Price has failed to show up in the big game. He has a career record of 2-8 in the postseason with a 5.03 ERA. That's certainly not ace material.  

So will the Yankees go the route of David Price and give Justus Sheffield a taste of postseason play as a late-game specialist before unleashing him as a starter in 2019? With the additions of J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn, the Yankees rotation come playoff time seems set. However, with the injuries to Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson, not to mention lack of consistency from the likes of Tommy Kahnle, Zach Britton and A.J. Cole, it is a sure bet that given the talent Sheffield possesses, he will have a key spot on the postseason roster. And then, once this season is complete, the Yankees will have the entire winter to prepare him for a spot in the 2019 rotation.