A key factor in the Reds’ success in 2012 was the signing of Ryan Ludwick, a player who was signed when his value was low, and whose production was worth a lot more than his salary. This is the latest entry in a series of articles where I look at free agents who could be acquired on the cheap and possibly provide more value than they would cost, and evaluate whether or not they could be a good addition for the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.
If you’ve only recently started following baseball, you won’t be familiar with Brandon Webb. But five years ago, he was among the most dominant pitchers in the National League.
An Ashland, Kentucky native and University of Kentucky product, Webb made his big league debut with the Diamondbacks in 2003 and immediately impressed. He made 28 starts in his rookie season, winning 10 games with a 2.84 ERA in 180.2 innings. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind fellow starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis, despite having a better ERA, WHIP, strikeout rate, home run rate, etc., though Willis had a better record and helped lead the Marlins to a World Series title.
The next season was Webb’s worst in the majors as he struggled with control, leading the league with 119 walks and 17 wild pitches. In spite of this, he still managed a 3.59 ERA. That’s the highest ERA of his career. The following year, he posted a similar ERA of 3.54, but cut his walk total in half to 59, even though he pitched 21 more innings.
Then, Webb began a three-year run of dominance during which he was among the best players in the game. With a devastating sinker, he was an All-Star in each of the three seasons, posting a combined record of 56-25 with an ERA of 3.13. He finished no worse than second in the NL Cy Young voting in that span, winning the award in 2006.
However, he was also among the most heavily used pitchers in baseball, averaging 219 innings a season since he made his big league debut, and on Opening Day in 2009, Webb struggled in a short start, allowing six runs in four innings. Following the game, he was placed on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since.
It was reported earlier this month that Webb was planning on making a comeback and pitching again this season. But this is not his first attempt. After spending the entire 2010 season rehabbing his shoulder, he was signed by the Rangers, and made a start for their Double-A team. Less than two months later, it was announced that he would go under the knife yet again to repair the same shoulder that sidelined him in 2009.
So that’s a pretty big red flag. Shoulder injuries have been known to be career-killers, as opposed to elbow injuries, which are much more common. Undergoing Tommy John surgery has almost become a rite of passage for pitchers these days. At least four pitchers who were All-Stars this year–Fernando Rodney, C.J. Wilson, Joe Nathan, and Stephen Strasburg–have had the elbow procedure and recovered.
The list of shoulder surgery success stories is practically non-existent. One of the only ones that I could find is Chris Carpenter, who had surgery on his shoulder in his final season with the Blue Jays before sitting out all of 2003. Of course, he then signed with the Cardinals and has had several outstanding years, including winning a Cy Young in 2005. But Carpenter has also suffered through a few injury-plagued seasons since then as well.
In addition, Webb has essentially missed four entire seasons. I can’t think of anyone who has successfully returned from such a prolonged absence. (So long, in fact, that our image provider apparently doesn’t even have a picture of Webb in its database.) And although he’s still only 33, after one failed comeback attempt, the likelihood of Webb returning at all may be slim.
It’s almost impossible to expect him to once again be the pitcher he once was. But no team can ever have enough pitching, and if, by some miracle, he once again becomes the ace that he was five years ago, the Reds will have one nasty rotation. Or perhaps he could be a valuable piece in the bullpen. If he just manages to stay healthy and pitch fairly well in the minors, he could be used as a trade piece at the deadline.
Webb is scheduled to throw for teams after the holidays. The Twins, who have an absolute mess of a rotation right now, have shown the most interest so far. If they or some other team offer him a Major League deal, he would probably take it. But if he only receives minor league offers, Webb may want to stay in his home state and pitch in Louisville. In my opinion, the Reds should at least try to sign him to a minor league contract.