Webb's rehab boosts D-backs' hopes
Ace ready to rebound after missing season due to injury
PHOENIX -- In the executive offices at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks' front office staff has been busy retooling a team that finished last in the National League West in 2009.
General manager Josh Byrnes and his staff have fortified the bullpen, added a power-hitting first baseman, tweaked the rotation and found a second baseman. Not too shabby for a team operating on a relatively tight budget.
Yet despite the hard work, the biggest key to Arizona's success in 2010 can be found four days a week at Chase Field, two floors below Byrnes' office, sweating through workouts to strengthen his surgically repaired right shoulder.
"It's going good so far," ace Brandon Webb said.
Last season, however, was anything but good for Webb and the D-backs.
Toward the end of Spring Training, Webb felt some discomfort in his shoulder. He pitched through it and got the ball on Opening Day for the fourth straight season.
He didn't hang onto it for long.
The Rockies knocked him around and out of the game after just four innings. It was the only game action Webb would see as the rest of the season became a blur of failed rehab attempts, MRIs and doctor visits.
"I don't want to go through that again," Webb said after his workout Tuesday. "It was a tough year, a long year. I don't wish that on anybody. You only have so many years to play the game, and to lose a whole year kind of stinks. I had one of the best years of my career in 2008 and had high hopes for last year, and I thought we had a really good team. I thought we were going to be really good."
Minus Webb, the team got off to a slow start that cost manager Bob Melvin his job, and the team limped to a 70-92 record.
On Aug. 3, after numerous attempts at rehabbing the shoulder through rest and strengthening programs, Webb underwent a procedure known as debridement, which cleaned up any fraying around his labrum.
An example of just how important the D-backs regard Webb to their chances this year is the fact that they picked up his $8.5 million option for 2010 just before the deadline in early November to do so. To that point, Webb had yet to throw a baseball post-surgery.
"Cy Young in '06, runner up in '07, '08," Byrnes said of Webb, who was 56-25 with a 3.13 ERA over that stretch. "It's very difficult to replace that kind of performance."
Webb played catch four times in mid-November before shutting things down for the offseason. Not a large sample size, but it didn't take long for him to notice a difference.
"Even the first time throwing I wasn't apprehensive," Webb said. "Before I had surgery I was waiting for it to hurt when I threw. I don't know why, but the very first time I threw it I wasn't hesitant at all, my arm slot was good, my arm felt nice and loose. It was back to the way it used to feel like."
Although he usually spends most of the winter at his home in Ashland, Ky., this year he cut that time short so he could workout under the watchful eyes of the Arizona training staff.
Monday and Thursday each week, Webb works on his upper body and plays long toss, while on Tuesday and Friday he works his lower body and throws from a shorter distance. He mostly throws fastballs, but each day he unleashes about five changeups.
Next week he'll throw some bullpen-like sessions on flat ground and then the following week -- about Feb. 9 -- he is set to throw his first bullpen session.
"I haven't had any problems," Webb said. "I do a lot of stuff beforehand, get some heat, a lot of stretching to make sure I'm good and loose and have the blood flowing. Then afterward come back in and do some shoulder exercises."
As he ramps up his throwing, some of the shoulder exercises have been scaled back. However, he will have a maintenance program for the shoulder for the rest of his career.
"It's not good to lose the year, but maybe I'll gain a year on the back end of my career somehow because of it," he said.
The D-backs plan on being cautious with Webb when Spring Training opens in Tucson next month. Webb said he thinks he will be ready to be a full participant from Day One, but manager A.J. Hinch said he plans to talk to Webb to make sure he does not try to do too much too soon.
"We're not going to arbitrarily hold him back if he's ready," Hinch said. "But I want him to know that if he's a few days or a week behind the other pitchers, that's fine, too. I don't want that seen as a failure if that happens. We'll see how the next few weeks go and then make a determination on his schedule."
Said Byrnes: "Again, it's a six-month season, and we'll monitor and see how to best get him ready to pitch a six-month season. He's progressed well, and the throwing he's done since the first of the year has been more of a normal progression. It's all very encouraging."
As for where Webb's long-term future lies, well, that's yet to be determined. Drafted by the D-backs in 2000, he will be a free agent for the first time after the 2010 season. At age 31, he will likely command a large contract on the open market, provided, of course, he shows that his shoulder woes are in the past.
The D-backs and Webb had agreed on a three-year extension during the 2008 season, but the D-backs withdrew the offer when they had trouble getting the contract insured. It seems doubtful that they will be able to afford to get a deal done this time.
"Hopefully everything goes well, I can go the full season, get 200 innings in with a decent ERA, and the team will do well, and we'll see what happens after that," Webb said. "I don't know what my future holds. It's something that I don't think anybody knows. I don't want to just totally tie myself down to Arizona. It's not that I don't want to play here, I've said all along this is my first choice. I've really enjoyed my time here, enjoyed my teammates and I think we've got a great squad. The coaching staff and front office, I really like them. If it doesn't work out, it happens to people every year, they have to move on and go somewhere else.
"I just take it day by day; I don't worry about that stuff. I've seen it happen to guys when they come up, they want to stay in the big leagues and not go back to the Minor Leagues, and they're so worried about that, their production goes downhill. They put too much pressure on themselves to perform, and you can't do that if you want to be successful."
What's also clear is that if the D-backs hope to be successful, they'll need a healthy Webb.
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.