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03/13/11 6:33 PM ET

Webb's return only a matter of timing

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Asked if Brandon Webb pitching again in the Major Leagues was a question of when or if, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington replied Sunday:

"Definitely when."

That is how encouraging Webb's work was Sunday, when he threw a batting-practice session. The Rangers have invested $3 million in Webb, even though he has had only one start over the last two seasons because of a shoulder injury.

What came before that, though, was what motivated the Rangers to give Webb a long look. He was the National League Cy Young Award winner in 2006 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He won 56 games over three years, capping that stretch with a 22-victory season in 2008. Throughout this period, Webb's signature pitch was the sinker, which was one of the best in the game, possibly the best in the game.

Sunday's work was Webb's second time throwing batting practice this spring. There was general agreement among all the relevant parties that major improvement had been made from the first session to the second.

"Much better," Washington said. "The ball came out crisper, had late movement, [the hitters] didn't center them very well. That's the good thing -- improvement. That was pretty good compared to the last time.

"He had a good changeup, stayed in his arm slot a little more consistently. The sinker had some bite to it."

All of this gave Washington a sense of assurance about the direction of Webb's future. "Oh it's when, definitely when, not if," the manager said. "He's healthy, and we've just got to get his arm strength up and get him feeling good about his mechanics and all of this -- keep him facing hitters. But it's going to be when, not if."

Washington acknowledged that he did not have a specific idea of "when" will be. Webb's next step will be to throw another batting practice, probably in four days. The Rangers are exercising considerable -- and understandable -- caution with Webb. The likely medium-term scenario, barring any major setbacks, will be for him to continue throwing BPs, go back to Texas with the team as the season opens, throw at least one simulated game and then go out on a rehabilitation assignment.

Webb himself was smiling broadly after his work Sunday. He threw 61 pitches, and through the first 44, only one ball was hit with any authority to the outfield. Asked for a comparison with his first throwing session, he said:

"Better for sure. I thought the fastball was good, I thought the location was a lot better than last time. I was surprisingly happy with it, I guess you could say. The [sinker] was good. You can tell when it's good. I used to throw a lot of back-door sinkers to lefties, get them looking. When you can do that, that's when you know you're getting some extension, and the only way you can do that is if you can get extension. I was able to do that today."

There was no radar gun on Webb, which obviously left open the question of his velocity. Webb, who will be 32 in May, guessed that he was in the mid-80s, but said that this was not a big issue for him.

"I thought it was a little better than last time," he said. "I'd be happy with 88 mph. That's all I ever used to pitch at anyway, 88-89. I would pass 90-91 maybe three times a game. My velocity is not my game at all. [Greg] Maddux was out there throwing 82 mph. Movement and location, that's all it is."

The velocity was not an issue for the manager, either.

"I thought he popped some balls pretty good," Washington said. "It's a matter of him finding that arm slot consistently. When he finds that arm slot consistently, the velocity will pick up. But I'll tell you what, if he continues to get better, he can get hitters out, and that's all I [care] about."

Based on Webb's work Sunday and the improvement it represented, the idea of this pitcher once again getting big league hitters out has advanced; all the way to being a question of when, not if. And that notion offers the Rangers hope that their rotation could be bolstered by a pitcher who not that long ago was a genuine ace.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.