ST. LOUIS -- Jake Westbrook isn't thinking about the upcoming winter. From the Cardinals' perspective, it's this past April and May that aren't worth much mind.
When the Cardinals acquired Westbrook from the Indians on July 31, they picked up a pitcher with an ERA of 4.65. That didn't sit too well with a lot of Cardinals fans, who looked at that number and the fact that the Redbirds had given up Ryan Ludwick to get him and saw a mismatch. What the Cardinals saw, however, was a pitcher whose full-season numbers didn't do him justice.
In his first season in the Major Leagues since undergoing Tommy John surgery, Westbrook understandably started slowly. He felt good, but his command wasn't there. He needed 92 pitches to get through four innings on Opening Day. He had a 5.74 ERA on May 5, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts.
Then things started to turn around. He got his first win on May 11, and his first complete game on May 16. From May 11 through June 23, he looked more like himself, and over his final 15 starts in Cleveland, Westbrook's numbers almost looked like they used to, back when he was one of the American League's best pitchers. That's what the Cardinals saw, and that's what Westbrook expects himself to be.
His stuff was there, but it took the command a little while to come around. When it arrived, Jake Westbrook started to look like himself.
"That's always the last thing that comes," Westbrook said. "I've never been an absolute spot-'em-up type of pitcher. I've relied on my stuff and keeping the ball down, letting my sinker work for me. But if you don't have command of that, down in the zone, you're still going to get in trouble. So I've gotten better with my command, better command of all my pitches as the season has gone on. Not just my sinker. And that's fun, when you can go out there and not worry about your arm."
He's been even better with the Cardinals, giving St. Louis a much-needed rotation boost. He's pitched 19 innings in three starts, averaging a strikeout per inning and walking just two batters in three games, and has been amassing huge numbers of groundballs. In short, he's been exactly what his new team hoped.
"I'm impressed," manager Tony La Russa said. "He goes after hitters. Somebody asked me why his strikeout total is up, and one thing is, he gets strike one and strike two. You can't get strikeouts when you're behind in the count. He's thrown his fastball to both sides of the plate, shown the ability to throw the ball down and up. He's got a couple different breaking balls, and he's got an excellent changeup."
Westbrook provides insurance against a potential fade by rookie Jaime Garcia, as well as the possibility that Kyle Lohse doesn't return to his old form. Going forward, he might also offer an intriguing option for the 2011 rotation and beyond.
General manager John Mozeliak said on the day of the trade that he hasn't seriously pondered the chance that Westbrook could reup with the Cardinals beyond this season. However, it's long been clear that the team likes what the right-hander offers. And Westbrook has seemed to fit right in, not only with the Cards' pitching philosophy, but with the clubhouse culture as well.
Still he, like the team, isn't talking about next year yet. He'll have plenty of time to ponder his free-agency options when the 2010 season ends.
"Right now, I'm feeling good about the way I feel, and that's what I'm concentrating on," Westbrook said. "And trying to help this team win some ballgames. In the winter, I'll worry about that."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.