Now they only help other teams get there.
The last time Jake Westbrook's elbow felt this good, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee still pitched for the Indians.
|Due $11 million this season, Jake Westbrook is likely on his way out of Cleveland in July. (AP)|
Ask Westbrook how long the recovery from Tommy John surgery took and he'll tell you, "It felt like forever."
It felt like long enough for the Indians to go from one of the best teams in baseball to one of the worst. It felt like long enough for the Indians to trade away their first Cy Young Award winner in 35 years -- and then to trade another one 12 months later.
The Indians don't have a third straight Cy Young to offer up in the July trading market this year. But they do have Westbrook, who seems to have recovered so well from his June 2008 surgery that he's a viable option for teams (especially in the National League) looking for a midseason pitching boost.
Westbrook missed the last four months of the 2008 season, and he made only three minor-league starts in 2009. Neither he nor the Indians could really know what to expect when the 2010 season began.
His numbers (2-3, 4.78 heading into Tuesday night's start against the Tigers) aren't overly impressive. But Indians people have seen steady improvement through each of his first 10 starts, to the point where they say Westbrook isn't far away from being the pitcher who won 15 games for Cleveland in both 2005 and 2006 after making the All-Star team in 2004.
"He's really close," pitching coach Tim Belcher said. "Physically, he's great. He's really good physically. It's just a matter of more consistent command. And what tells me that he's getting there is I see less frustration on his face each time out."
Doctors told Westbrook, as they tell any pitcher coming off surgery, that the consistent command will be the final thing to come back. For a pitcher like Westbrook, who lived on his sinker (his ground ball/fly ball ratio in 2006 was 1.63), command is crucial.
The way Belcher sees it, by sometime around the All-Star break, Westbrook should be the pitcher he once was. And while Belcher won't say it, that likely means that by the end of July Westbrook will be pitching for someone else.
Indians people have been telling other teams that they're open to anything, that they'll listen to trade proposals on any of their players. They'd love to find someone to take Kerry Wood, could certainly trade Russell Branyan, and have another available starting pitcher in Fausto Carmona.
Recap: Yankees 11, Indians 2
But Westbrook, in the final year of a contract that pays him $11 million this season, figures to get potential trade partners most interested. And the potential to rid themselves of even part of the $7 million or so they still owe Westbrook would obviously tempt a Cleveland team that has averaged just 14,304 fans a game in the 21 home dates since the home opener.
"That's just kind of one of those things," Westbrook said. "For me, I'm just happy to be pitching again, and I'm going to worry about pitching."
There will be other pitchers on the July market, notably Lee and Roy Oswalt. But there are even more teams that figure to be looking for pitching, and while Lee's 2009 salary ($9 million) is lower than Westbrook's, that only means that the Indians will likely offer to pay more of Westbrook's salary, and to take lesser prospects in return.
Some people around the team are hoping that Westbrook isn't dealt, and that the Indians eventually re-sign him to a smaller contract that keeps him around as a veteran influence in the rotation. But given how willing Indians management has been to move veterans for prospects (in addition to Lee and Sabathia, they've traded away Casey Blake, Victor Martinez, Paul Byrd, Ryan Garko and Carl Pavano over the last two years), it's hard to believe that Westbrook won't be headed out the door, as well.
It all depends, of course, on his surgically repaired elbow.
"I feel great," he said. "I feel unbelievable. I'm at the point now where I'm not even thinking about my elbow."
He said the problems with the elbow began well before the day it gave out, two years ago this week. It goes back before that, to the time when the Indians were a playoff team.
It's not that long ago. The Indians of 2007 finished just one win shy of making it to the World Series. They got past the Yankees in the first round, then held a 3-1 lead on the Red Sox before that night when Sabathia couldn't close it out at Jacobs Field.
The name of the ballpark has changed since then, and so has almost everything else.
"It's definitely been a lot of turnover," Westbrook said. "But we put ourselves in that position, by not winning."
They didn't win in 2008, and Westbrook's injury was no doubt one of the reasons why. They fell far enough behind in the standings that they traded Sabathia to the Brewers, putting him back in the playoffs.
They didn't win in 2009, either, and then Lee was gone to the Phillies -- and also to the playoffs.
They're not winning in 2010, already in last place, 11 games out of first heading into Monday's game against the Yankees.
The Indians aren't going to the playoffs, not this year. But they still could help another team get there.
And this year, Jake Westbrook could be the one who does it.