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11/24/09 2:10 PM EST

Winter ball latest test for Westbrook

Rehabbing righty expected to make at least three starts

CLEVELAND -- Jake Westbrook is the Indians' purported Opening Day starter for April 5 in Chicago, but he has a high hill to climb first.

The climb begins in earnest Saturday, when Westbrook is scheduled to make his first winter ball appearance in Puerto Rico, where he'll pitch for Ponce. The Indians have not determined an official length for Westbrook's winter ball stay, though he is expected to make three to five starts, building up innings and pitch count each time.

Westbrook has been in Goodyear, Ariz., at the Tribe's winter development complex, all month, getting his arm stretched out after a long layoff brought on by a setback in his recovery from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

The 32-year-old Westbrook had that surgery performed in June 2008. The Indians had hoped to have him back in their rotation by the middle of the '09 season, but he suffered two setbacks that limited him to just three Minor League rehab starts. He was shut down from early August to mid-September.

If all goes to plan and Westbrook takes the ball for the Indians on Opening Day, that would be his first start in the big leagues since May 28, 2008, also against the White Sox. And Westbrook made just five starts in that '08 season.

Clearly, then, Westbrook's return requires the removal of quite a bit of rust, which is why newly installed pitching coach Tim Belcher was dispatched to Goodyear to fine-tune Westbrook's mechanics in advance of his winter ball stint. And manager Manny Acta will be on-hand in Puerto Rico to see Westbrook pitch in mid-December.

The Indians' offseason construction could center around Westbrook's availability. If he has another setback, that heightens the club's need for a veteran starter to lead a young and unproven rotation.

Acta has made it clear that he'd like to add a starter, regardless of Westbrook's status, though it's doubtful the Indians would have the financial resources to add a high-impact arm either way. The Indians don't want to add a starter just for the sake of adding him, as they have depth in that area, including Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, David Huff, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Carlos Carrasco, Hector Rondon and Jeanmar Gomez.

"You have to bring the right guy," Acta said last week. "We're not bringing a veteran guy just to bring him. Because we have Jake here. If Jake's healthy, he's the veteran guy who can lead these young guys. We're going to be very careful that we're not going to block the progress of these young guys."

Westbrook will be entering the final year of his contract and will make $11 million in 2010. If he's healthy and effective, he could become trade bait at the July non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.