SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Few people know Brandon Webb's arm better than his father, Philip.
Since Webb was playing Little League, Philip has crouched down behind the plate and caught the balls his son fired at him.
"Not everyone can say they caught a Cy Young pitcher," said Philip, 58, who lives in Ashland, Ky.
No, they can't. But Philip noticed the ball wasn't quite as sharp coming out of his son's hands the past few years. Shoulder issues caught up with Webb and he had surgery in August 2009. The 2006 NL Cy Young Award winner has pitched only four innings in the big leagues the past two seasons.
But during this past offseason, Philip noticed a difference. It started with throwing a football, something which seemed to help Webb with his arm slot. And after texting with pitching coach Mike Maddux about what to expect in spring training, Webb decided to hop on a mound a few times before arriving in Surprise.
"The ball came out of his hand better, with better rotation, and the arm strength picked up," said Philip, a left-handed pitcher in high school and legion ball. "After one of the sessions, he said, 'I feel like I can get hitters out now.' That was a big plus for him. Pitching is a lot between the ears. You've got to feel like you can do it and you've got to have the confidence you can do it. For whatever reason, he got that confidence back this fall."
Webb walked into the clubhouse on Wednesday and he still had that confidence. He said his goal is to make the starting rotation on Opening Day.
"I definitely feel that's realistic," Webb said. "I'm expecting things to go great."
If Webb's crystal ball somehow proves accurate, he could end up being the key to the Rangers' rotation in 2011.
Texas has C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, two starters who stayed healthy, gave the team innings and won pivotal games in 2010. But beyond that there are questions. Can Tommy Hunter stay consistent and healthy for all of this season? Who earns the final spots in the rotation? Can the rotation get the job done without Cliff Lee in it?
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and his staff believe Webb can help the team despite his limited innings the past two seasons. Besides the Cy Young, Webb was an All-Star in 2007 and 2008. The last time he pitched a full season (2008), he won 22 games.
The gamble cost Texas $3 million. That's what Webb is guaranteed no matter what happens. If he stays healthy and performs well, he can earn an additional $5 million in incentives. If the Rangers end up paying Webb $8 million, chances are they'll be in the playoff mix again come October.
"He could be a lightning in the bottle for us," manager Ron Washington said.
The Rangers don't want to rush into anything. They know Webb can help them only if he's healthy, and if that means easing him into things -- even if that means he isn't in the rotation come Opening Day -- than that's what they'll do.
Webb concedes that he pushed things too hard in 2010 and it cost him. Rangers physician Keith Meister performed shoulder debridement surgery on Webb in August 2009. The procedure cleans up loose debris and inflamed tissue.
"I've talked to guys that have had the procedure and it's a year and we tried to do it on a six-month time scale," Webb said.
That forced the pitcher to go through numerous setbacks that didn't allow him to take a mound with confidence in the shoulder until the instructional leagues in the fall. Once that was over, he took some time off before throwing again on Dec. 15.
He could tell during those throwing sessions with his father that things felt more like they did back before the shoulder problems cropped up.
"It was a long two years," Philip Webb said. "He worked hard trying to get back, but it didn't seem like he could get over the hump. It seems like he is now."
If that's true, it would provide a critical boost to the Rangers' rotation.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.