This weekend, Todd Karpovich of MLB.com announced that upon his return Chien-Ming Wang would be heading to the Washington Nationals' bullpen because Ross Detwiler’s performance has been too strong to remove him. Despite this, Davey Johnson stated, “…But I don’t look at him as a reliever. I look at him as a quality Major League starter.” This decision, although not controversial at the moment, leads Nationals’ fans to question if the investment in an injury prone pitcher ever be worth it?
Before the Nationals signed Wang in 2010, he played his complete baseball career with the New York Yankees. Signed at the age of 20, New York never expected Wang to produce some of the great seasons that he did in his short five-year major league tenure. Wang made his debut in 2005, after efficiently rising through the minors. In 18 games, he pitched 116.1 innings with a 4.02 ERA and an 8-5 record. The next year Wang exploded. He led the league with 19 wins and .5 home runs per nine innings, leading to a second place finish in the Cy Young Award voting. This continued into the next season, where once again Wang finished with 19 wins and an impressive .4 home runs per nine innings pitched. Combined, he won 38 decisions with a 3.67 ERA and only 13 losses in these two years.
In 2008, everything changed. Wang started the season just as consistent as the last two. He pitched 15 games, going 8-2 with a 4.07 ERA and once again a .4 home runs per nine innings. On June 15, Wang made his last start of the season in an interleague game against the Houston Astros. While running the bases, Wang suffered a torn lisfranc ligament and a partial tear of the peronues ligament in his right foot. The intensive rehab program he required ended any hope of returning to the mound in 2008.
He returned in 2009 and nothing was the same. In 12 games, he recorded only one win with six loses and a horrible 9.64 ERA. His previously insanely low home run per nine innings jumped up to 1.5, and his WHIP was above 2.00. On July 15th, the Yankees placed Wang on the disabled list for the second time, and on the 30th, he was placed on the 60-day DL after right shoulder capsule surgery. After the season, Wang failed to resign with the Yankees and became a free agent.
Coming off of one of the worst season in the Nationals’ short history, Washington was desperate for an answer to their woes. In February of 2010, they announced that they had signed Chien-Ming Wang to a 1 year $2 million contract and expected Wang to return to the rotation before the end of the season. Unfortunately, rehab didn’t go as planned, and Wang did not return to the majors. The next season, the Nationals resigned Wang for one year, but this time only $1 million. After even more rehab, Wang finally returned to the majors on July 29th, 2011. In 11 starts, he accumulated a 4.07 ERA with a 4-3 record before the end of the season.
This performance was enough for the Nationals to once again sign Wang to another one-year contract. This time at a more confident $4 million. Going into spring training, he was expected to start the season in the fifth spot in the rotation, but he was placed back on the disabled list with a hamstring injury after an awkward tumble in the last spring training game of 2012. Ross Detwiler stepped in and so far, has shown his great potential with a 3-3 record and 3.65 ERA in 8 starts. This performance has solidified Detwiler’s position in the rotation, at least for the time being, which leaves Wang with probably the only open position in the team’s pitching staff, the long reliever position.
The problem being, for most people, Wang will be the fifth highest paid player on the roster while being very injury prone and under utilized. Their argument is that, over these three years, Washington has invested $7 million in a player that has not produced since early 2008. Now, he may only relieve for the rest of the year if Detwiler continues or if an injury occurs.
Many people forget that today, $1-2 million is relatively cheap for a pitcher who once put up 38 wins in two consecutive seasons. At the time of signing, as said before, the Nationals were desperate for a pitcher who could turn the tide. To remind everyone, in 2010, the number one pitcher was Livan Hernandez. The investment in Wang seemed high-risk, high-reward to many because of all Wang’s problems, but the price truly made it low-risk deal with potentially high-reward. Even though Wang didn’t throw a major league pitch in his first season, his short return in 2011 was enough to justify the $3 million the Nationals risked on him between 2010 and 2011.
This year, the $4 million that the Nationals are paying Chien-Ming Wang is a bit harder to justify because of the team's pitching depth, but the fact that Wang, when healthy, is one of the best spot starters in the majors helps. If anyone in the current solid rotation suffers any problems or injuries, the Nationals have an experienced pitcher who can step in and give the team a good chance to win. If he never returns to the rotation, he only really needs to put together an average season in the bullpen without injury for the front office and the fans to be satisfied with the money that was spent. Another injury to Wang would be devastating, and this year’s investment would be wasted, but with a little something this year, every one of Nationals’ deals with Wang will be worth it.