- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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With all due respect to John Lackey, Randy Wolf, Rich Harden, Joel Pineiro, Jason Marquis, Doug Davis and Jon Garland, this will not go down as the free-agent winter that fulfilled a pitching-deprived general manager's dreams.
That comes next offseason. Sometime around the 2010 Congressional elections, Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett, Javier Vazquez and Ted Lilly will go to market. And if all goes according to plan, they'll be joined by a healthy, productive, exceedingly popular Brandon Webb.
Remember him? From Opening Day 2004 through the end of 2008, Webb ranked second in the majors to Johan Santana with 1,135 innings pitched. He won a Cy Young Award in 2006, reeled off a streak of 42 consecutive shutout innings in 2007 and combined with Dan Haren to give Arizona one of the most formidable 1-2 starter tandems in the majors.
How much of a weapon was Webb's sinker? "Imagine somebody standing about 15 feet away from you and throwing a brick at you and trying to catch it," Arizona catcher Chris Snyder said in March 2007. "It just disappears."
Last year, it was Webb who disappeared. After gutting it out for four unsightly innings against Colorado on Opening Day, he never pitched again. The summer was a haze of doctor's visits, MRIs, MRIs with dye injections and inexplicable shoulder discomfort before Webb finally conceded defeat. In early August, Dr. Keith Meister brought the suspense to an end by treating Webb to a debridement -- otherwise known as a "cleanup."
For a competitor of Webb's caliber, it was the type of ordeal best viewed in hindsight.
"They kept doing MRIs and the doctors all said the same thing: 'There are people in the big leagues who have 10 times worse-looking shoulders than you and they're pitching right now. It doesn't look that bad,'" Webb recalled. "That was always encouraging, but I was like, 'Why can't I throw?'
"Towards the end it was just a nagging pain that I could never get rid of. I knew I couldn't pitch effectively like that. I was like, 'Something's got to give.'"
Five months later, Webb's arm feels fine and he's looking forward to his free-agent "walk" year. His spirits are higher than his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio.
That's welcome news for the Diamondbacks as they try to exorcise the memories of a lost 2009 season. Two years after winning 90 games and making it to the National League Championship Series, Arizona went 70-92 and finished last in the NL West. The team ERA spiked from 3.98 to 4.42, and Garland, Yusmeiro Petit, Billy Buckner and Kevin Mulvey weren't able to compensate for Webb's absence.
"Brandon is a good enough pitcher that when he misses an entire season, he's almost impossible to replace," said Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes. "If he can get back anywhere close to where he was, it changes our team completely."
As the mid-February spring training reporting date fast approaches, Webb is rehabbing with Diamondbacks trainer Ken Crenshaw and using a regimen that he adopted from Curt Schilling in 2003. He's throwing from a distance of 60 feet off flat ground for a designated time period, and will gradually work his way back to long-tossing for more extended durations. He expects to throw off a mound four to six times before the start of camp.
Webb's typical winter routine took a detour this offseason. He usually loads the family into a recreational vehicle and makes the trip from the Arizona desert to his home in Kentucky, where he gets his fill of hunting and Kentucky Wildcat basketball. He also keeps his arm limber playing catch with his father, Philip, a chemist for Marathon Oil, in his hometown of Ashland.
Webb spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in Kentucky, but the "Field of Dreams" scenario was scotched when he had to return to Arizona early to work with the Diamondbacks' training staff. But Philip Webb has made it clear he's ready to go next winter.
"I bet there aren't many people in the big leagues who get their arm ready for spring training throwing with their dad," Webb said, laughing. "I think it's pretty cool he's still able to do that."
Webb, for all his success, remains as delightfully down-home and engaging as a baseball star can get. His family brood consists of daughter Reagan, age 3, son Austin, age four months, and the mother of all canine menageries.
Webb and his wife Alicia have two miniature dachshunds, a black lab and a 120-pound mastiff named Mick who operates under the mistaken impression that he's a lap dog. Last year the Diamondbacks held an "Adopt a Pet'' Day at Chase Field, and Alicia brought home a shepherd mix named Thor. The Webbs collect dogs the way Torii Hunter collects Gold Gloves.
In many respects, Arizona is a perfect fit for Webb. He's popular in the clubhouse and a charity machine in the community, and the local media contingent is small enough that he can live and work at his own pace.
We've had a great time in Arizona, and if everything works out and we stay here, that would be good. But to get back close to home [in Kentucky] would be just as good. I'm definitely keeping it open. I'm not going to hold myself down to just Arizona.
”-- Brandon Webb, who will be a free agent after the 2010 season
"It's a beautiful place, and he can be a quiet superstar, if you will," said Jonathan Maurer, Webb's agent. "It's very comfortable in Arizona and the fans are very respectful, and I think he just flies under the radar."
Still, sentiment counts for only so much when a man has one or two big free-agent paydays in his career. If Webb's hiatus from pitching drummed home anything, it's the fragility of his profession. There were some touch-and-go moments last fall before the Diamondbacks decided to exercise his $8.5 million club option for 2010.
Recent history is certainly encouraging to Webb. If Lackey and A.J. Burnett could fetch five-year deals for $80 million-plus, how much is Webb worth if he returns to his 200-inning form in 2010? He's anxious to find out.
"Obviously you want to see what's out there and do the best deal you can for yourself and your family," Webb said. "That's probably No. 1.
"We've had a great time in Arizona, and if everything works out and we stay here, that would be good. But to get back close to home [in Kentucky] would be just as good. I'm definitely keeping it open. I'm not going to hold myself down to just Arizona."
Although Byrnes declines to delve too deeply into team finances, he concedes it will be "challenging" to craft a long-term deal for Webb. Haren is signed to a four-year, $44.75 million contract with a $15.5 million club option for 2013. Outfielder Eric Byrnes' salary comes off the books after the season, but Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Edwin Jackson and the team's young core players aren't getting any cheaper.
Byrnes is more forthcoming about the impact a healthy Webb can have on Arizona's division title aspirations. Right now the Diamondbacks are looking at a rotation of Haren, Webb and Edwin Jackson, with former Yankees prospect Ian Kennedy in the mix and Buckner, Mulvey, Rodrigo Lopez and Bryan Augenstein competing for the fifth spot. At age 30, Webb is developing a more diverse repertoire each year.
"With the evolution of his changeup, he has a lot of ways to get a hitter out," Byrnes said. "Everybody sort of labels him a sinker-only guy, but he's a pretty good pitcher. He's not just a one-trick guy."
And just because a guy is humble by nature, that doesn't mean he can't set the expectations bar high.
"I'm hoping to go in and have a normal spring training," Webb said. "If we don't make the playoffs and I'm not a Cy Young candidate, I'll be disappointed."
If Webb is confident, that means he's healthy, and that's what matters most. As long as the innings come, the money will be sure to follow.
After missing nearly all of last season with a shoulder injury, Brandon Webb is confident he will return to his dominating ways in 2010.