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01/13/10 4:40 PM EST

Westbrook thankful for winter experience

Healthy season important as vet leads young staff

CLEVELAND -- A year ago, Jake Westbrook was in the midst of a rehab program that he hoped would have him ready to rejoin the Indians' starting rotation in the second half of the season, just in time for the playoff push.

Twelve months have passed, and Westbrook and the Tribe are both in a much different position.

Westbrook, who had Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in June 2008, didn't throw so much as a single pitch at the Major League level in 2009, and the Indians made a series of moves that drastically changed the direction of a team now geared more toward developing its young players than bidding for an American League Central crown in 2010.

When Westbrook last pitched in the bigs on May 28, 2008, he was part of a rotation that also included fellow veterans CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Paul Byrd.

When he returns, presumably as the Opening Day starter on April 5, he'll be the lone grizzled vet in a group of starters looking to find their footing.

"Time just absolutely flies," Westbrook said on a call with reporters Wednesday. "I used to be the guy trying to establish himself in the big leagues. Next thing I know, I'm one of the veteran guys trying to lead by example and by my routine. ... We're going to have a very young staff and also a sinkerball-heavy staff with myself, Fausto [Carmona], Justin Masterson and Aaron Laffey in the mix. I'm going to try to do everything I can to get myself ready and lend any hand I can with anybody who has any questions."

So, how ready is the 32-year-old Westbrook? If his four-start stint in the Puerto Rican Winter League is any indication, he's definitely ready for Spring Training and his ensuing return to the rotation.

Westbrook turned in four no-decisions with a 3.65 ERA in Puerto Rico, allowing five earned runs and 15 hits while walking six and striking out six in 12 1/3 innings.

Most importantly, he was pain-free.

"Puerto Rico was awesome," he said. "It was a great experience. I'm really glad I went. It was one of those things I was hesitant to do, because I've never done it before, but it was great. ... My elbow felt great, and the most encouraging thing was to be able to meet all my pitch requirements. That was very encouraging for me going into Spring Training."

Westbrook isn't expecting any major limitations on his workload in spring camp. He said he should be ready to tolerate the usual starting pitcher's program.

"I'll probably have a few things programmed for me," Westbrook said. "I may not do a bullpen [session] every other day from the get-go. But I'm going to be a part of the team and doing everything with everybody else. That's what I'm looking forward to, because I haven't been able to do that for a long time."

Indeed, Westbrook's time between appearances has been so long that there will be significant questions about what he'll be able to contribute upon his return. Those are questions every pitcher faces when he comes back from Tommy John surgery, but Westbrook's age, his spot in the rotation and the setbacks he endured during rehab attempts in the Minors last year make them all the more pertinent.

The Indians have already eaten a big chunk of the $33 million extension Westbrook signed early in 2007. They owe him another $11 million in this final year of his contract. If his return goes well but the team is out of contention at the break, it's reasonable to expect that Westbrook could become trade bait before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

For now, Westbrook has nothing but good things to report about his recovery. He said his velocity reached about 90 mph, -- about his average -- in Puerto Rico, and he was pleased with the "reaction" he got from hitters who stood in against him.

"I was throwing everything I wanted to at any time," Westbrook said. "I wasn't holding anything back. In Spring Training, I'd like to get my arm stronger to throw 100-plus pitches."

Westbrook said he'll report to camp in Goodyear, Ariz., in mid-February, roughly a week to 10 days before the official pitchers and catchers report date of Feb. 21. After all the time off he's endured, his eagerness to get to camp is understandable.

"It's taught me a lot of patience," he said. "They say it's a 12-to-18-month recovery, and I've hit that, and beyond. It's taught me to realize that nothing's given to any of us, and you can't take anything for granted. I'm going to do everything I can to get back and healthy as soon as I can."

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