Breakout Candidate: Ryan Webb, SP

Throughout spring training, will profile a handful of Oakland A's minor leaguers who seem poised to make a jump from the ranks of the relatively obscure to the well-known. In the second of our series, we take a look at a tall right-hander who will be looking to translate some post-season success into outstanding 2006 results.

If we had been doing this series last season, Ryan Webb likely would have been at the top of the list. Webb entered the 2005 campaign as a sleeper pick among many analysts to have a break-through season. Webb never found the consistency in 2005 that would allow him to post outstanding overall numbers, but there were enough positive aspects to Webb's campaign that would lead one to believe that the break-through season people were predicting for Webb last year will come to fruition in 2006.

Webb was drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 draft out of high school in Clearwater, Florida. The son of a former major league baseball player, Webb came to the A's with a reputation as an advanced high school pitcher with a good work ethic and pitching smarts. Webb showed an advanced feel for pitching during his first professional season with the A's Rookie League team in Arizona, as he walked only one and struck out 23 in 20 innings of work. That performance earned Webb a promotion to low-A Kane County for the 2005 season where he was the youngest player on the team at age 19.

Webb's 2005 campaign was an up and down affair. He pitched well in April (2.79 ERA in 19.1 innings) and May (3.67 ERA) and poorly in June (7.17 ERA) and August (6.53 ERA) and was average in July (4.36 ERA). All told, Webb went 5-11 with a 4.74 ERA and only 84 strike outs in 128.2 innings. Like so many young pitchers, Webb struggled with his mechanics, especially out of the stretch position. When he faced hitters with the bases empty, Webb held batters to a .268 average. However, with runners on-base, that BAA jumped to .298. Webb also struggled with his command against left-handed hitters, as he had 24 walks versus 26 strike outs against southpaws. Against right-handed hitters, Webb struck out 58 and walked only 17.

Webb admitted in a post-season interview with that he struggled to feel comfortable with his mechanics for much of the season. Tall pitchers, in particular, often struggle with maintaining consistent mechanics, and, at 6'6'', Webb is one of the tallest pitchers in the A's system. He went to the Instructional Leagues to work on those mechanical difficulties and his improvements at camp earned him the "Most Improved Player" award.

Outlook for 2006

When Webb is throwing well, he works down in the hitting zone and he induces a lot of groundballs. Even with his struggles last season, Webb still had a good groundball to flyball ratio at better than 1:1. He also had a respectable HR/9 ratio at 1.12. He was a victim of a sometimes porous Kane County defense that put him in the stretch frequently via fielding errors. Defenses generally get better at each level, so that should be less of a problem for Webb if he is in high-A Stockton next season.

Webb's fastball sits in the high-80s, low-90s with good sinking action. His long frame can deceive hitters into thinking that the ball is getting on them even faster then the radar gun would indicate. He has a change-up, slider and a developing curve-ball. Webb has the reputation of being a hard worker and a thinking-man's pitcher, traits that will only aid his development as he gets more experience as a professional.

Webb enters the 2006 campaign as a 20-year old and he is likely to spend the season in high-A Stockton. Although the California League is a much better hitter's league than the Midwest League, Webb is still a candidate to pitch well next season because he keeps the ball on the ground. He'll need to show better command against lefties, especially with the inviting right-field porch at the Ports home park, Banner Island. If he can maintain his newly refined mechanics, Webb could have an outstanding season for the Ports, who should have a solid defensive infield to back him up.

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