Casting Webb.

I wrote 2,714 words about the signing of Rich Harden last year, two weeks before the holidays.

I then wrote 129 words about the signing of Colby Lewis, two weeks after the holidays.

It’s fun to think we’ve got it all figured out.  But there’s no way that even the most optimistic on Lewis – and I’m including the baseball people who committed to the acquisition – could have dreamed up the end to his 2010 season (3-1, 2.37 in his final five regular season starts, and then 3-0, 1.71 in four playoff starts), which were as money as the final minute-thirty of “Let Down.”  Or that the most skeptical on a presumably healthy Harden could have expected that big a bag of letdown.

It’s probably safe to plan in your mind for Brandon Webb to deliver less than Lewis did in 2010, and more than Harden, but as for which needle he’ll push toward, beats me.  

Is he the guy who, from 2005 through 2008, averaged nearly 18 wins (best in the game) against just nine losses, posted a 3.23 ERA, coaxed three times as many groundouts as flyouts (best in the game), and carried the heaviest load in baseball, logging 232 innings a year with one of the deadliest sinkers of his generation?  

Or the guy who pitched the first four innings of the Diamondbacks’ season in 2009 but none since, due to shoulder surgery – performed 16 months ago by Rangers team physician Dr. Keith Meister?

Again, almost certainly neither, but somewhere comfortably in between.

Is he Cliff Lee?  Of course not.  You might even argue that in 2006, when Webb won the NL Cy Young, or in 2007 and 2008, when he was twice the runner-up, he wasn’t the dominant force that Lee was for Texas, or that Philadelphia will pay Lee to be for the next five or six years.

But Texas isn’t into Webb for $120 or $135 million.

Is he Zack Greinke?  Well, no.  At 31, he’s four years older than Greinke, is a greater health risk, and never had a season as great as Greinke’s 2009.  

But the Rangers didn’t have to give up Derek Holland or Tommy Hunter or Martin Perez or Tanner Scheppers or Robbie Erlin or Engel Beltre or Jurickson Profar, let alone four or five of them, to get Webb.

Don’t misunderstand me: I wanted Cliff Lee to stay.  (So did Texas.)  I’ve been neurotically relentless for nearly three years about getting Zack Greinke.  (So has Texas.)  I’m not pretending that Brandon Webb is their equivalent (even though I proposed back in February that Texas offer Justin Smoak, Wilmer Font, and Kasey Kiker to the Diamondbacks for a healthy Webb at trade deadline time).

But I’m on record as being thankful that Texas didn’t give up the dollars and years for Lee or the players for Greinke that it apparently would have taken to get one of them here.  

The upside would have been greater with Lee or Greinke.  But so would the downside, in terms of the lasting impact of the cost.  

The thing about adding Webb, in spite of his pedigree, that differs greatly from adding Lee or Greinke is that it feels like the hunt for a number one probably continues.  Easier said than done (as the pursuit of Lee and Greinke has shown), but Webb isn’t someone being counted on to front the rotation.  If they have a press conference this week announcing Webb’s signing, less will be said about his place in the starting five than there was a year ago at Harden’s presser.

There’s a cool thing about this that I’m going to have to get used to.  It used to be assumed that, to sell a coveted free agent pitcher on coming to Texas, the recruitment had to include things like “lifestyle” . . . “great offense” . . . “Nolan Ryan wore this uniform” . . . “year-round golf” . . . or, “We’ll give you $65 million, Chan Ho.”   Now?  There’s Mike Maddux.  There, 75 feet over your right shoulder, is Elvis Andrus.  There, in Webb’s case, is Dr. Meister.

And of course, there’s that fact, which in some instances like this one I find I still have to remind myself, that the Rangers are the reigning American League champions.  

Not a terrible selling point.  

Fellow playoff teams New York and Cincinnati were apparently in on Webb, as were the Cubs and Nationals.  He wanted to be in Texas.

We don’t know the terms of the contract yet, and Webb will have to pass a physical before anything’s official.  (Remember that, in February 2009, the Rangers had agreed to terms on a two-year deal with Ben Sheets before a failed physical killed it.)  

And even if Webb clears that hurdle and signs what is expected to be a one-year major league deal (without a club option for a second season, which benefits Webb), there’s going to be the matter of where his velocity is (he reportedly sat mid-80s in a Fall Instructional League appearance in October, roughly five mph short of his pre-injury levels), where his command is, where his game is.

Shoulder surgeries are scary, trickier to come back from than elbows.  Chris Carpenter came back strong.  So did Colby Lewis and Joaquin Benoit and Curt Schilling and Jimmy Key and Orlando Hernandez and Orel Hershiser and Bret Saberhagen and a young Roger Clemens.  But you don’t have to go back a full generation for a much deeper list, detailing those who were never the same.

If the heavy sinker comes back, it’s obvious that Webb – who has allowed fewer home runs per nine innings (0.63) than any active starter with 850 career innings – could put up tremendous numbers in Texas.  And of course, it must be said that if that were to happen, he could be among the top free agent starting pitchers on the market a year from now (as could C.J. Wilson).  The Rangers in that case would theoretically have in their favor the success that Webb experienced here, and his familiarity with teammates and the Ballpark and the community, and so on.  They thought they had that with Lee, too.

But first things first: There’s a physical to pass, a contract to announce (and two players to be removed from the 40-man roster, to make room for Webb and Arthur Rhodes), and six weeks in Surprise for Webb to reestablish himself.  And then a big league season, if all goes well, in which he maybe takes the ball every fifth day, piling up double play grounders and innings pitched from the back half of the rotation, surpassing cautiously optimistic yet moderate expectations the way Colby Lewis in his own comeback season a year earlier.

Bottom line for me, I guess, is that I’m fine with this move, however it ends up, and I’m glad it wasn’t the Angels or A’s that Webb chose.

As long as we don’t view this impulsively and expect Webb to come in here and take on the responsibilities that would have been expected of Cliff Lee or Zack Greinke, this one has a chance to pay off in its own way.

And if it doesn’t?  The Rangers will be prepared to move on, without much negative impact.  They’re far better able to survive a bad contract than they were at this time a year ago, and even then I’d say they had a pretty nice season despite the wasted commitment to Rich Harden, a pitcher who for various reasons was being counted on to carry a heavier load than Brandon Webb is now.

Those are my thoughts, at least, in a zippy 1,282 words.

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