Justus Sheffield’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest started with a stop in Longview.
The Seattle Mariners’ top prospect was one of two players hanging out at Truman Mykelbust Gymnasium on Monday afternoon as part of the annual Mariners Caravan.
The last 12 months have been “kind of a whirlwind” for Sheffield, a left-handed pitcher who was traded from the New York Yankees to Seattle for southpaw starter James Paxton early in the offseason. He’s built a name for himself, was considered one of baseball’s top prospects by last June, and said playing multiple sports in high school helped get him there.
“I was never the type to just stick to one sport,” Sheffield said. “The reason why I did quit basketball and football later in high school was letters started coming in, and I could possibly start doing something with baseball. That’s when I knew that I could let go. But as far as playing all three sports from youth up, I feel like that benefited me.”
At just 22 years old, Sheffield burned his way to Triple-A during the 2018 season, finishing with a 2.48 ERA in the minor leagues and made two relief appearances in pinstripes.
Colleges weren’t threatening to rescind offers to Sheffield for playing football and basketball, but he made the decision only after it was clear that he could make a living playing professional ball.
“It was just more of a personal thing for me,” Sheffield said. “This is my way out of my hometown. This is my way to get to college or to the pros. So I went with it and focused on baseball after that.”
Sheffield’s most memorable moment playing high school sports was winning the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year award in 2014, becoming the first Tennessee athlete to do so.
“I wanted to win it my junior year, and then I had a goal set for my senior year that I wanted to win it,” Sheffield said. “That was the first time I actually set a goal like that and was able to accomplish it. That was pretty crazy. I felt like since I did that, it kind of opened my eyes to setting goals every year and trying to accomplish those.
“It was kind of a learning moment for me, just being able to win that.”
Sheffield said he was lucky to have great coaches helping him along the way, from youth baseball onward, having a two-way dialogue and accepting feedback.
“Understanding how I don’t want to do that, or want to do this, while also taking their advice,” Sheffield said. “It was a good connection between my and my coaches through the years.”
Now Sheffield has a whole new crop of coaches to work with, and also his best chance to date in maintaining a rotation spot at the big-league level. He doesn’t feel like there’s any added pressure being a headliner in a deal that shipped a fan-favorite across the country.
He’s also established a goal for himself, just as he did five years ago before winning national player of the year.
“Going out there and doing anything I can to help my team in any possible way I can,” Sheffield said. “The chemistry in the locker room is amazing and that’s where it starts. And if that’s all I’m hearing, I know we’re heading down the right track already.”
Reliever Chasen Bradford, and announcers Ryan Rowland-Smith and Aaron Goldsmith also attended Monday’s event, fielding questions from a crowd of nearly 200, and signing autographs.
The Mariners begin Spring Training Feb. 21, before taking on the Athletics in a season opener in Japan on March 20. Ichiro is expected to play in the two-game opening series in his home country.