Welcome Back, Wang?

English: Wang in bullpen 2

Will Wang return to Yankee Stadium in 2013? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pop quiz hotshot:   Name the pitcher who (a) had the most wins in the major leagues from 2006 to 2007; (b) finished second to Johan Santana in the voting for the American League Cy Young Award in 2006; and (c) was chosen over potential Hall-of-Famers Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte as the Yankees’ opening day starter in 2008?

Based on the photograph that accompanies this post, you have probably surmised that the answer is Chien-Ming Wang.  (But, be honest, how many of you would have known that answer without the photograph?)

At the end of spring training this year, Brian Cashman and the Yankees took a flyer on Wang by signing him to a no-risk minor league deal.  (Be honest again, how many knew Wang was in the Yankees’ farm system?)  Yesterday, Wang made his third start of the 2013 season for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders, and, according to the SWB Railriders Blog, Wang posted the following line in a win: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB.  Through three encouraging minor league starts, Wang is now 2-1 with a 0.95 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 7 K over 19 innings pitched, and he has inserted himself into the picture as a potential contributor to the 2013 Yankees.

In a not-so-distant-past, Wang and his power sinker were a formidable force in the American League.  Entering his age-28 season, Wang had compiled a remarkable 46-18 record in the majors and his statistics (3.74, 1.29 WHIP) confirmed that Wang was much more than the beneficiary of a potent Yankee lineup.  In fact, Wang’s greatest asset was his consistency.  In 63 starts from 2006 to 2007, Wang failed to pitch at least 5 innings only 3 times.

Watching hitters face Wang’s remarkable sinker, which sometimes touched 95 miles-per-hour, was fantastic and oftentimes hilarious.  These mighty sluggers saw what they presumed to be a low 90s fastball and their eyes would light up.  But, as soon as the batters swung, the baseball surreptitiously dipped, which resulted in a weak three-hopper to the shortstop.  It was like watching Lucy pull the football back every time Charlie Brown attempted to kick it.  Professional hitters knew the sinker was coming and they knew that the pitch would dive out of strike zone, but they couldn’t help but swing anyway.  One could almost see the hitters trying to convince themselves, “This is the at bat when I finally hit his sinker! 

Alas, two months into the 2008 season, which was shaping up to be another stellar season (Wang had 7 wins by June 10, 2008), Wang injured himself running the bases during an interleague game against the Houston Astros.  Wang tore the Linsfranc ligament in his right foot.  It is well-known that successfully rehabbing Linsfranc injuries can be complicated and such injuries are sometimes career threatening (just ask former Detroit Lions running back Kevin Jones).  Most Yankee fans recall the next series of events.  After rehabbing, Wang returned to start the 2009 season, but he was clearly still compensating for his right foot injury as his release point was some five inches higher than the previous season.  This led not only to Wang getting absolutely shelled in his first few outings of the season (I was there for the opening day of New Yankee Stadium when Wang gave up 8 runs in 1.1 innings) but also to Wang injuring his right shoulder, requiring season-ending surgery.

After signing with the Nationals, Wang missed all of the 2010 season and the majority of 2011 season.  Wang did make 11 starts in August and September, compiling respectable numbers (4.04 ERA).  However, the following season was disastrous as Wang pitched to a 6.68 ERA while logging only 32.1 innings in the major leagues.   This past offseason, Wang appeared to be a long shot to be signed by any major league team.  Hoping to generate some interest from major league clubs, Wang played for Chinese Taipei during the 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Based on his performance (12 IP, 10 hits, 1 BB, 3 K), the Yankees signed Wang to a minor league deal on March 23rd.

Between the World Baseball Classic and his three minor league starts, Wang has tossed 31 innings this season and has allowed only 26 hits and four walks.  He has also struck out 10 batters while posting an ERA and WHIP under 1.00.  To put this in perspective, during a typical spring training, a starter competing for a rotation spot would likely pitch between 20 and 30 innings.  For example, David Phelps and Ivan Nova, who were competing for the final rotation spot on the Yankees this spring, pitched 28.0 and 19.1 innings, respectively.  Thus, Wang’s 31 innings pitched cannot simply be brushed away as being a “small sample size.”

Most importantly, Wang has, by all accounts, looked healthy.  He is throwing strikes and the reports about his velocity are promising.  According to River Avenue Blues and Mark Feinsand, Wang lived in the upper 80s and the low 90s during last night’s start.  While Wang may never consistently throw as hard as he did in 2007, a ground ball pitcher can certainly have success at the major league level with speeds in this range.

It is too early to assess whether Wang will ultimately be successful at the major league level this season.  However, given the current composition of the pitching staff, it is clearly within the realm of possibilities that Wang will find himself on the active roster sooner rather than later.  Ivan Nova is already hurt and was pitching poorly prior to his injury.  His replacement, David Phelps, has not fared much better out of the bullpen.  Even ignoring Phelps and Nova, the reality is that the rest of the Yankee rotation consists of a soon-to-be 41-year-old (Andy Pettitte), a 38-year-old (Hiroki Kuroda), and a pitcher who missed time last season with an elbow injury (CC Sabathia).  Further, with Vidal Nuno replacing Nova on the active roster, the Yankees have few major league ready starters left at the Triple-A level.1  Dellin Betances has picked up right where he left off last season (7.58 ERA in 19 IP), Brett Marshall (7.36 ERA) still needs some seasoning in the minors, and 34-year-old Chris Bootcheck (career 6.54 ERA) last appeared in the majors in 2009 with the Pirates.

1         The lack of major-league-ready talent (whether pitcher or position player) at the Triple-A level is shocking and extremely telling about the state of the Yankees.  With all of the early-season injuries to the veteran players, the lack of minor league depth forced the Yankees to scrape the bottom of other team’s barrels (Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, and Lyle Overbay) and to trade for a player that no other team wanted (Vernon Wells).  It is extremely disconcerting that despite routinely being ranked as an above-average farm system by the pundits, the Yankees’ “minor league talent” always seems to be buried at the lower levels (Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott) rather than at the Triple-A level.

While Nuno would likely get the first crack at a rotation spot if another injury occurred, Wang has positioned himself to be the next man up, which was an inconceivable thought as little as thirty days ago.   Given the rash of injuries the Yankees have dealt with and the relatively strange vibe to the early season,2 one gets the feeling that Wang may not only return to the majors this season but may also be relied upon to pitch meaningful innings for the Yankees.

2         I think most fans feel that the start to this season has felt somewhat peculiar.  The Yankees are 16-10 despite injuries to the team’s starting first baseman (Mark Teixeira), starting shortstop (Derek Jeter), starting centerfielder (Curtis Granderson), starting catcher (Francisco Cervelli), and both starting third basemen (Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Youkilis).  Additionally, despite the perceived lack of power in the lineup, the Yankees have hit the second most home runs in baseball.  Another example of the strange beginning to the season is that after sweeping the Blue Jays, the Yankees were blown out in the first game of the series against the lowly Astros.

In a season where seemingly every veteran player on the Yankees’ roster has been hurt, wouldn’t it be something straight out of a Capra film if the veteran Wang – who has been unable to stay healthy since 2008 – returned to the Yankees and stabilized the back-end of the rotation?

Conveniently (or serendipitously), no one on the forty-man roster wears number 40.