In six days, Chien-Ming Wang, the erstwhile ace of the Yankee staff now relegated to the two spot behind CC Sabathia, will turn 29. In pitching years, he is hitting his prime, and for the Yankees and Wang, 2009 will be a pivotal year.
For the better part of four years, Wang has been a mainstay in the Yankee rotation. He has made 95 starts since May of 2005 and has gone a remarkable 54-20 with a 3.79 ERA. What makes his 117 ERA+ even more outstanding are his admittedly terrible peripherals. For his career, Wang has a 4.02 K/9 IP and a 1.54 K/BB ratio. Pitchers with those key numbers generally don’t hold their opponents to a .265/.320/.365.
Wang does this, of course, by being an extreme groundball pitcher. He sports a career 1.58 GB/FB ratio and has induced 94 double plays over his four years in the Bigs. His sinker is so good that it confounds the statistically-minded experts and the BP PECOTA system who see his low K rates and worry.
In New York, Wang is adored by the fans and treated like an ace, but the Yankees have seemingly never quite embraced him as such. In a recent blog post, Joel Sherman voices some Wang-related speculation, and in doing so, he brings up a few good points:
Wang is going to be a free agent after the 2010 season so to keep him the Yankees are going to have to pay him elite dollars over a long-term to stay: He will likely have a case that he should be paid commensurate with the five years at $82.5 million bestowed A.J. Burnett. And the Yanks, internally, are not positive about going to such extents with Wang. He has pitched four seasons in the majors and two have been interrupted by injury. They wonder how a pitcher who does not strike out batters will age as he loses some bite on his sinking fastball, especially since he has been sketchy in developing the rest of his repertoire. And he would begin a new contract in 2011 at age 31, so you almost certainly are buying declining years.
Because of all of this, the Yankees have weighed trade scenarios in the past involving Wang and, I suspect, they will continue to at least listen, especially if they believe that Hughes is capable of being, at minimum, a cost-effective, mid-rotation starter. The Yankee logic would be simple: If they do not think they can go long-term with Wang then would they be better off letting him pitch for them through 2010 or to use him to potentially fill another area of need via trade?
In Sherman’s view, the Wang scenario hinges on Phil Hughes. If the Yanks feel Hughes can handle Major League hitters to the extent we believe he can, the team may be willing to shop Wang for the right price.
Now, Sherman’s argument breaks down in a few places. Wang’s 2008 injury wasn’t pitching-related; rather, it was some baserunning fluke. Sherman also speculates that the Yanks could try to trade for Roy Halladay. If they don’t want to pay Wang for his decline phase, why would the team want Halladay, a pitcher three years older than the Yanks’ right-hander?
But Sherman’s points about Wang’s repertoire carry some weight. Chien-Ming Wang is no longer considered young, and at this point, he should have mastered the rest of his pitches. Yet, that non-sinker out-pitch has continued to elude him. Last year, Wang showed some strike-out promise. His K/9 IP was up around 5.12 before his baserunning disaster struck. Take out his nine-strike out game against the Indians, though, and that figure settls in at 4.60.
Wang’s stuff has often been compared to the heavy, hard sinker Kevin Brown sported in his younger days. By age 27, though, Brown had mastered the strike out. If Wang is to emerge as a true long-term option for the Yanks, he may need to take that big step this year.
In the end, though, I come out with Sherman: The Yanks will sign Wang. Even if he sticks around as a two, three or four starter behind some combination of Sabathia, Joba, Hughes or Burnett, a team can never have too much pitching.