How much is Brandon Webb worth?

"Webb loves Arizona and they will be considered highly, but Brandon WILL be looking at an incentive-based contract [with] a guaranteed base where [Brad] Penny and [Rich] Harden at $7.5MM, [Ben] Sheets at $10MM and [Tim] Hudson's $9.33MM average annual value are all conversation starters.  Webb, when healthy, is one of the top pitchers in the game.  Arizona is a great place to play, ([though] it has always been a hitter's park, Webb has dominated there) but I anticipate significant interest in what is a very healthy Brandon Webb, with his signature life back on all his pitches."
  -- Brandon Webb's agent, Jonathan Maurer

The above statement appears to have been a first shot in negotiations on the future of Brandon Webb, who is a free-agent in Arizona at the end of this season. There's no doubt that Webb, if he can return to the form of 2006-08 [one Cy Young, two runner-up positions and an average of 5.7 BR WAR per year], would be an asset to any rotation. That's not the main question here. The question is how much should Arizona offer to keep him here?

Certainly the "conversation starters" mentioned above don't seem to leave much to talk about here in Arizona. Team president Derrick Hall told Jack Magruder, "It is a very strong stand... It would have to be a situation that makes sense for both. It would have to be a performance-bonused deal with a base." This isn't something the Diamondbacks generally like doing, and that doesn't appear to have changed under Jerry DiPoto, but there have been exceptions in the past, for players coming back off injury: Tom Gordon is the most recent example. However, the scale of these deals has been small: Gordon was only guaranteed $500K.

That certainly would not cut it with regard to Webb. The problem is, there are not many truly comparable players to provide a decent baseline. For instance, none of the ones mentioned in Maurer's statement missed virtually two whole seasons through injury. Penny and Harden pitched virtually full 2009 seasons; Sheets missed one full year; Hudson just over a year. Hudson and Sheets also had elbow rather than shoulder problems, and the simple hinge joint of the elbow, is a lot less problematic than the ball-and-socket one of the shoulder. If I know this, so does every major-league team: I would be there is no $7.5m guaranteed contract for Webb this winter.

Nick Piecoro sets his comparable sights a good deal lower: Chien-Ming Wang. "He got $2 million plus a chance to earn another $3 million in bonuses. For me, $2 million is a little high, considering how little Webb has pitched, but I have little doubt he’ll be able to get that on the open market." He, like Webb, is a sinkerballer, and Wang his season ended by shoulder surgery at the end of July 2009. As an aside, one wonder if these are connected; does throwing a sinker mess up your shoulder? On the other hand, Derek Lowe is one of only two active pitchers to have played for a dozen seasons without a trip to the DL, so never mind.

However, Wang has his difference to Webb too. He had missed only half a season when he was signed, and had been far from effective at the start of 2009. Some people suspect a foot injury suffered while running the bases in interleague play affected his delivery, leading to issues with his hips and then on up to his shoulder. It certainly is the case that there appears to be a lot more potential cause for concern there than with Webb, and the Nationals, who signed Wang, have got exactly the same for their money to date as the Diamondbacks have from Webb - nothing at all, with Wang also currently throwing in simulated games.

The truth probably is, we are pretty much in uncharted territory here. I can't think of a truly accurate comparison, where a pitcher of Webb's caliber, who had finished #1 or #2 in Cy Young voting for three consecutive years, then lost virtually two complete seasons, immediately before hitting free-agency. It's a bit like TIm Lincecum going to arbitration with back-to-back Cy Youngs under his belt - this is just not something that happens on a regular basis, so any numbers which you try to find are, as a result, inevitably going to be inexact.

For the DIamondbacks' point of view, an important question is whether they want to roll the dice for 2010. There's been some suggestion here that the team could be one ace pitcher away from contending next year. Whether management shares that optimism or not, likely plays into whether they make a serious play at resigning Webb - if healthy and back to form, he would certainly be that ace. However, it is a gamble: one we took this season, which definitely failed to pay off. The team might prefer to cut the potential losses, rather than risk throwing good money after bad.

Certainly, if they do sign Webb, they need a better Plan B than this season, where the absence of Webb led to Arizona opening this year with Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson at the back of the rotation. Things should be a little better, with Kennedy, Enright, Hudson and Saunders currently set as #1-4, and the possibility of Jarrod Parker making his debut at some point [though it looks like the team will be taking it slowly with regard to his rehab, and they may also want to avoid any risk of him becoming a Super Two player]. Derrick Hall said in his last online chat, the top priority is

"definitely the bullpen and pitching in general. We would like to beef up the back-end of the bullpen by trading for a closer or signing one in the off-season. A few more solid arms in the pen, including another lefty would really help."

But the question is, will money paid to Webb mean less for other areas? As the saying goes, "Don't gamble if you can't afford to lose." While it's not my money, from a fan perspective, I would hope that, if the team budget for 2011 is $X, then it remains that, and does not count money given to Brandon, rather than going to $X minus $Webb. Any production Webb can give us would then be a bonus - if we also have a good #6 starter, they're still going to get plenty of use [in the past three full seasons, Arizona pitchers outside #1-5 have started 21, 21 and 23 games. We're already at 28 there this year, but a large factor in 2010 are the trades]

It strikes me that, from a Diamondbacks point of view, it may not be in their best interests to let Webb pitch much this season, if they want to try and re-sign him. At the moment, they probably have a much better idea of Webb's progress than anyone else, and letting him showcase himself in a major-league contest would open that up to the potential competition. If he comes in and is 'nails', that would be a much better advertisement for his future services than bullpen sessions or "simulated games" thrown in front of team scouts.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic. Here's the poll, with three different base salaries, and three different incentive packages for each. How much would you offer Webb for 2011?

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