The Washington Nationals finalized a one-year contract with Chien-Ming Wang yesterday, agreeing to pay the sinkerball specialist $4 million with various incentives in 2012. The move helps shore up a starting staff that finished 20th in the game with 10.7 WAR last season, or at least that’s the plan.
Wang, 32 in March, returned to the mound late last June after recovering from a torn shoulder capsule, an injury that kept him on the shelf for basically two full calendar years. He pitched to a 4.57 FIP with a 53.4% ground ball rate in eleven starts and 62.1 IP, finishing strong with 16 strikeouts and zero walks in his final four outings. Wang never has been and never will be a strikeout pitcher, owning a career 4.11 K/9 and 5.1% whiff rate. He limits walks (2.58 BB/9) and gets his grounders (59.5%), that’s pretty much it.
My problem with the signing isn’t CMW himself – he can be a solid contributor to the club’s rotation next year if he stays healthy – it’s the price. $4 million guaranteed for a guy that really hasn’t had any kind of sustained success since the middle of 2008, a season that ended in June because of a fluky right foot injury suffered while running the bases with the Yankees during interleague play. Wang was awful in 2009 before hurting his shoulder (9.64 ERA and 5.38 FIP in 42 IP), an injury you might be able to trace back to the foot. If he was hesitant or unable to push off properly, he could have easily hurt his arm trying to compensate.
Anyway, Washington just set the market for reclamation-type starters, at least in terms of guaranteed money. I’m sure the agents for guys like Erik Bedard and Bartolo Colon are licking their chops now, ready to point to the money the Nats are paying Wang and ask why they should accept less for their client. CMW was never really an ace, but he was a good pitcher for a bunch of Yankees teams that helped him compile some gaudy wins totals. That was more than three years ago though. Bedard posted a 3.64 FIP in 129.1 IP just this season while Colon had a 3.83 FIP in 164.1 IP. Both guys did it in the tougher league as well, and they all share durability concerns. If Wang can get $4 million guaranteed for lower upside and a shorter track record of recent health, it’s not hard to see those guys holding out for bigger paychecks, and forcing teams to decide how much they want to gamble on guys they can’t really count on.
The Nationals are clearly a team on the rise, finishing one game shy of a .500 record in 2011 and boasting a strong young core with Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, among others. Wang could help solidify their rotation and add some respectability if he stays on the mound, but Washington is paying a premium for that chance. We’re now two contracts into free agency, and I’m left wondering if Wang’s contract, along with Juan Rivera‘s similarly-priced deal are isolated events or a sign that teams are going to invest more heavily in the bottom of their roster.