Justus Sheffield came to the Mariners in a tough situation. The centerpiece of a deal that sent fan-favorite pitcher James Paxton to the New York Yankees, Sheffield now has a prime opportunity to hold down a spot in a major league rotation for the first time. He’s only 22 years old, and epitomizes Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto’s stated plan for the franchise.
The southpaw is coming off a season in Double-A and Triple-A in which he recorded a 2.48 ERA and 123 strikeouts over 116.0 innings. He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and figures to slot in somewhere in the Mariners rotation in 2019.
He was drafted by Cleveland in 2014 as the 31st overall pick and was traded to the Yankees with Clint Frazier in exchange for Andrew Miller in 2016.
Sheffield sat down with The Daily News reporter Jason Leskiw for an interview during the Mariners Caravan’s first stop, at Lower Columbia College in Longview. He touched on the last 12 months, his high school days, and the seasons ahead.
Have you ever been to the Pacific Northwest before?
Justus Sheffield: No, this is literally my first time.
What’s this last year been like for you?
It’s been kind of a whirlwind, but not too much. I’ve been traded before, so nothing new. I’m really excited to get to Spring Training, just to meet my teammates, meet the coaches, meet the staff and get this thing going. I know what we’re trying to do over here. I understand that. So I’m excited to push for these next couple of years to get into the playoffs and bring a world series to the city.
Being a young player, what’s this ride been like, even going back to your high-school days?
Now that I look back, it’s almost like it came quick. And really, I’m just enjoying the process. Enjoying the day-to-day, enjoying it with my teammates. Because that’s what makes the season easy. You’re out there with guys and you all have one goal. Last year was a really good year for me and I’m looking to improve and bring some better things into 2019.
You played football and basketball in high school also, right? Did that help you, in general, as an athlete?
I think so, 100 percent. I was never the type to just stick to one sport. And the reason why I did quit basketball and football later in high school was because 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 a lot.
Did quitting basketball and football have anything to do with colleges saying ‘Hey, we’d like to offer you, but you can’t play football. If you get hurt, we’re going to rescind it?’
No, It was just more of a personal thing for me. 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.
What was your most enjoyable moment in high school playing sports?
Probably my most memorable moment was winning the (Gatorade) National Baseball Player of the Year. 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. 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.
As far as Rookie A-ball, and high school, what was one particular thing that really helped you along and really progress as a player?
It’s hard to point out one particular thing, it just boils down to, in the past years, I’ve had nothing but great coaches. Nothing but great pitching coaches who’ve helped me — understanding that maybe I don’t want to do that, or maybe I want to do this — and I’ll take their advice and try something new that they see. So it was a good connection between me and my coaches through the years.
As far as this season, I know you mentioned that you kind of know what they’re trying to do — and the Mariners have drawn a lot of ire nationally — but we’ve seen the rebuilding process work really well.
Being a cornerstone of that, is there a goal that you have in that regard, and is there any added pressure to that for you?
I don’t think there’s any added pressure. I think if I go out there and do what I need to do, and focus on what I need to focus on, and play my type of baseball — which is going out there and doing anything I can to help my team in any possible way I can — then I feel like things will work itself out. As far as rebuilding goes, I think we’re going to surprise some people this year. Just like they did last year. Nobody expected them to have that run last year, and win 90 games. I talked on the phone to Dee (Gordon), and I’ve talked to Chasen (Bradford), and I’m hearing nothing but ‘the chemistry in the locker room is amazing.’ I know that that’s where it starts. So I know that’s all I’m hearing, I know that we’re heading down the right track already.