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NEW YORK -- The Yankees added pitching depth to their system on Friday when they traded Gary Sheffield to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for right-handers Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan and Anthony Claggett.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, in picking up Sheffield's contract option for next season, had been determined to make a deal for the outfielder, who became expendable when right fielder Bobby Abreu was acquired from the Phillies last July.
"This trade allows us to add three quality arms to our system," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in a statement. "I wish Gary Sheffield and his family all the best as they move forward."
The prize in the deal may be Sanchez, regarded as one of the top prospects in the Tigers farm system and whose name repeatedly came up in trade deadline talks last July.
Sanchez, 23, was 10-6 and ranked second among all Tigers Minor League pitchers with a 2.63 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 20 games (20 starts) with Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie in 2006. He struck out 129 in 123 innings while allowing 97 hits and 47 walks.
He began the season with Erie, where he went 5-3 with a 1.76 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .190 batting average in 11 starts before being promoted to Triple-A Toledo in June. In his first five starts with Toledo, Sanchez went 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA and was named the International League Pitcher of the Week from June 12-18. He finished the season with a 5-3 record and a 3.86 ERA in nine starts with the Mud Hens.
Sanchez, who attended high school in the Bronx, was named the Tigers' Minor League pitcher of the month in back-to-back months (May and June) after allowing just three earned runs over seven consecutive starts from May 17-June 18 (47 2/3 innings, 49 strike outs). Sanchez entered the 2006 season ranked as the Tigers' sixth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. He was selected by the Tigers in the 31st round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft.
Of all the prospects in a deep Detroit farm system, none caught as much attention as Sanchez. His name was intertwined with Nationals outfielder Alfonso Soriano for most of July, though Washington had more interest in Class A West Michigan outfielder Cameron Maybin. At least three other teams reportedly watched Sanchez in his last start July 19 at Pawtucket, and others have eyed him from afar. Just when Sanchez might've been the most-discussed prospect on the trade market, he was off of it. A tender throwing elbow in mid-July prompted the Tigers to shut him down for two starts, taking him past the July 31 trade deadline.
The interest last summer was a microcosm of Sanchez's career. While Joel Zumaya and Justin Verlander rose quickly to the big leagues last spring, Sanchez has been in the system as long or longer with somewhat comparable potential -- a big right-hander with a similarly big arm. It simply took this long to translate it into a season of results.
His 2002 season was interrupted by shoulder and bicep strains. He was an All-Star selection at Class A West Michigan in 2003, but struggled down the stretch after inflammation in his elbow. He rose among the Tigers top prospects in 2004, but a knee injury cut his season short.
The most frustration came in 2005, when three different disabled list stints held him to 11 starts at Double-A Erie. He put up a 10-strikeout game and fanned 31 batters over 24 2/3 innings in June, but after missing two months with a lat strain before missing most of August with a groin strain. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League last offseason simply to get some innings.
Still just 22 years old entering the 2006 season, he earned his first Spring Training invite and watched Verlander and Zumaya pitch their way onto the Major League club.
"I think seeing some of the other guys up there sort of lights a fire under you," Toledo manager Larry Parrish said.
"It just makes you more hungry," Sanchez said. "It makes you want to compete more, because you feel like you've got some ability."
With better conditioning, the 6-foot-6 Sanchez finally had the health. Once he struck out eight batters in five scoreless innings for Erie in his season opener, he started putting up the numbers.
Back-to-back eight-strikeout games preceded a 13-strikeout gem over seven shutout innings April 29. He came within one out of a shutout on May 23, the first of three straight nine-strikeout games that wrote his ticket to Toledo. After a short first start there, he racked up 13 1/3 scoreless innings over two outings.
The ability wasn't any different. The consistency was the major difference.
"He's starting to get a pretty good feel for what he's doing," Triple-A pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "There's times when he gets a little bit out of whack, I won't tell him what he's doing. I'll ask him, and he'll tell me, and he's usually right. That's a big, big key. They've got to have a little feel for what's going on."
Said Sanchez: "It goes back to not trying to do too much worrying if I'm going to tweak this or being sore here. I'm going free and easy."
Whelan, 22, ranked third among all Tigers Minor League pitchers with 27 saves in 2006, going 4-1 with a 2.67 ERA in 51 games for the Class A Lakeland Tigers. He limited opposing hitters to a .178 batting average (33-for-185) and held right-handed hitters to a .158 average (18-for-114). In addition to being named a top prospect in the NY-Penn League following the 2005 season, Whelan also ranked as the 10th-best prospect in the entire Tigers organization according to Baseball America. He was originally selected by the Tigers in the fourth round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft out of Texas A&M University.
Claggett, 22, posted a 7-2 record with a team-best 0.91 ERA and 14 saves in 51 games for Class A West Michigan in 2006 (59 1/3 innings, 35 hits, seven runs, six earned, 20 walks and 58 strike outs). He held opposing hitters to a .174 batting average (35-for-201) and did not allow a run in his final 10 appearances of the season. He was selected by the Tigers in the 11th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft out of UC Riverside.
Sheffield, 37, batted .298 (45-for-151) with six home runs and 25 RBIs in 39 games for the Yankees in 2006. He missed a total of 117 team games while on the disabled list recovering from an injury to his left wrist. Sheffield was signed by the Yankees to a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth year on Dec. 17, 2003.
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporter Jason Beck contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.