The Yankees have the resources to take on a greater amount of risk than most teams. A misplaced $5 million might seriously hamper a smaller market team, but the Yankees — and the Red Sox, as evidenced by Brad Penny and John Smoltz — can take on a reclamation project and hope for the best. They did this in 2003, signing Jon Lieber after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2002. They rehabbed him on their dime, and it paid off when he came back strong in 2004. So when it comes to Chien-Ming Wang’s contract situation, there are no givens. The Yankees can afford to do what they think will most benefit the team.
As Mike wrote this morning, Wang is no stranger to shoulder injuries. “The bottom line is that for the third time in eight years, the righthander missed a significant portion of the season with a shoulder issue.” This has to make the team wary. Wang will be arbitration eligible for the third time this winter, having made $4.5 million in 2009. If the Yankees tender him a contract, he’ll make at least that, and because of his service time he could get a bump to $5 million. Let’s go with that latter number, just to make things easy.
The question facing the Yankees is whether that $5 million is worth it to keep Wang around. It’s not just his salary for the 2010 season, when he’ll pitch half a season at the most, but also the price for keeping him under team control for his final arbitration-eligible season in 2011. There are alternatives; the Yankees could decline to tender Wang a contract and then sign him at a lower price. They would then be able to offer him arbitration after the 2010 season for the final time. For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that if the Yankees non-tender Wang, he’ll take his services elsewhere. Tendering him means paying $5 million for 2010.
This is the Yankees, so $5 million might not seem like a lot. There’s risk involved, yes, and chances are that the Yankees would have to pay more than $5 million for one of the other risky starters out there. Those would include Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, and Rich Harden, and they would presumably be able to pitch the whole season, whereas Wang won’t be ready until July. Still, all three of those pitchers present a large risk. Wang will be cheaper, and the Yankees know him better than the other three. It seems that if they’re going the risky starter route, Wang’s their man.
Here’s a question I’ve been pondering regarding Wang’s status. Commenter Taz got it brewing in my mind when he asked, “Does anyone else think it’s ridiculous for the Yankees to exercise $1.25 mil on Mitre of the 6.59 ERA when pretty much any scrub from the minors would offer the same ability?” He says he’d rather put that money towards keeping Wang and replace Mitre with said scrub. Mitre’s $1.25 million is just a quarter of Wang’s projected salary, but every little bit helps, right?
First, to the issue of Mitre being a scrub. No one could be impressed with what they saw from Mitre during his tenure in pinstripes. He had one stellar start against the White Sox, but other than that he was shaky at best and downright terrible at worst. His defense failed him at times, but he could never pick up for them. It seemed like he was always making a bad situation worse. That infuriates fans, so it’s no wonder why Mitre has few supporters. Still, there is hope that he can provide value for the Yankees in 2010.
Mitre underwent Tommy John surgery in July of 2008. A year and six days after the surgery, he made his return. That’s a short span for a Tommy John patient. The normal recovery time is 12 to 18 months, and there are many stories of players who didn’t come back quite as strong at first, but who later recovered. Yet even if he does recover, I’ve heard the argument go, Mitre is just a scrub anyway. That I do not believe is totally accurate. In 2007, Mitre’s last season before the surgery, he had a 3.98 FIP, 4.34 tRA, and posted a 2.6 WAR. That’s pretty damn quality for a guy slotted to be the fifth starter at absolute best.
Like Mitre, no one was impressed with Wang this season. He started off pitching about as poorly as one could imagine, then hit the DL, then came back and was mediocre at best before succumbing to a shoulder injury. This led to a 5.38 FIP and a 6.01 tRA. Those numbers are both slightly worse than what Mitre posted in 2009. Both clearly had bad years, but because of what we’ve seen in the past, there’s a chance they’ll recover.
We know that Wang is a better pitcher than Mitre when they’re both right. We also know that Mitre can pitch the entire 2010 season, while Wang will pitch half at most. So, to begin answering Taz’s question, you might not want to cut loose Mitre and save his $1.25 million, because that investment can work for you all year, while the $5 million allotted to Wang will work only in the second half, if even that. But let’s take this a little further, into the completely theoretical.
Past performance does not guarantee future gains, but sometimes all we have to go on is past performance. For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that both Mitre and Wang return to their 2007 forms in 2010. Mitre would, under those circumstances, provide a 2.6 WAR for $1.25 million. Wang had a 4.4 WAR in 2007, almost two full wins better than Mitre. But because Wang would only pitch half the season, he’d only provided 2.2 WAR in 2010 under what I’m calling the best case scenario. The Yankees would pay him $5 million for that 2.2 WAR.
Even if both players recover fully to their 2007 forms, Mitre would provide a little more value than Wang. He’s the inferior pitcher, but because he can pitch the entire season he has that added value. Wang would be a greater force in the second half, but again he’d only be doing it for half a season, and he’d make four times as much as Mitre in the process. So there is an argument, albeit a weak one, that the Yankees are better off with Mitre in 2010.
Do I think that Mitre will provide 2.6 WAR in 2010? Not a chance. Not only will he not get the innings, but he also likely won’t return to the 0.54 HR/9 rate that led to his 3.98 FIP (a component of WAR). While WAR does adjust for park, I’m just not sure the adjustment will do Mitre’s transition justice. In 2007 he pitched in a spacious National League park. In 2010 he’ll pitch in a homer-heavy (but otherwise run-neutral) AL East park. He also probably won’t be higher than seventh on the starting pitching depth chart, so I would assume most of his innings will come out of the bullpen. I’d be surprised if he cleared a 1.5 WAR next year.
Do I think that Wang will provide 2.2 WAR in 2010? Probably not. I think he has a better chance of doing that than Mitre does of posting the same number, but that’s asking a lot from a guy who has missed a good portion of the past two seasons, and who is recovering from his third major shoulder injury. If he can provide 1.5 WAR in the second half, I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled. That would not only help the rotation later in the season, but it would also give them hope of a fuller recovery for 2011.
Unless the Yankees are hard-up for 40-man roster spots (and as Mike will show, they’re not), they should exercise Mitre’s 2010 option. It will represent a little over one half of one percent of their overall payroll. The tougher question is of Wang. If tendered he’ll eat up a 40-man slot until they can place him on the 60-day DL in March, and he’ll constitute about 2.5 percent of the overall payroll. Is that worth the risk? I’m still not decided, though I’m leaning towards yes. I fear that non-tendering him means he goes elsewhere, and I do not want to see him make a full recovery with another team. Wang was the anchor of the staff for two seasons when the Yanks lacked an ace. WIth the current staff, he only has to be a No. 3. I think he can fit into the Yankees plans for 2010 and beyond.