Nationals have interest in Webb, but can he be the pitcher he once was?

The Washington Nationals scouted former Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb today as he pitched in the instructional league for a rehab assignment. Earlier this week MLB.Com writer Bill Ladson indicated that there may be mutual interest between Webb and the Nationals this offseason:

“It was learned by MLB.com on Friday that he would have interest in playing for the Nationals if he doesn’t re-sign with the D-backs. It’s not a secret that Webb has a close relationship with general manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted Webb in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft when Rizzo was director of scouting with Arizona.”

Webb is currently recovering from season ending shoulder surgery which he underwent in August of 2009. The 31-year-old made his last major league appearance on opening day two years ago where he suffered significant shoulder discomfort. He struggled with the pain before finally getting the surgery towards the end of the season. Webb sat out the entirety of 2010 trying to rebuild his shoulder strength to mount a comeback. Now a free-agent, Webb is trying to prove that he can still be the star he was just two years ago.

From 2003-2008 Webb was arguably one of the best pitchers in the National League. Armed with a deadly sinker, Webb won the National League Cy Young in 2006 and was the runner up in both 2007 and 2008. In his career he has led the league in wins and shutouts twice, and has posted an ERA below 3.60 each season. Throughout his entire career he has posted a ground ball percentage above 60% and had a WAR above 6.0 his last three seasons. Quite simply, he was franchise player before his shoulder fell apart.

Now at 31 he is attempting to regain that status, if not respectability. And early indications are that Webb’s patented sink on his fastball has returned, the only concern for scouts now is that his velocity is not where it was before his injury. In his first outing last week Webb topped out in the high 70’s with his fastball, which was not a promising sign considering the length of his recovery period. However, Ed Price of AOL Fanhouse tweeted today that Webb was throwing between 81-84 MPH in his second outing.

At his peak, Webb’s fastball sat between 87-88 MPH, which means he may not be that far off. If his velocity does return to 100%, he certainly would be worth the right contract to the Nationals. He likely wont demand huge money considering he will have to prove himself again, which means the Nats could get a serious steal at a seriously good price. Of course, the club needs to be careful. Even if Webb’s fastball returns to 100%, there’s no guarantee that he will have any durability or control.

Look for the Nationals to work out a similar deal they did with Adam Dunn in 2008, or that Ben Sheets signed this offseason. Medium risk, high reward.