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What’s Wang With This Picture?

Chien-Ming Wang, 2008 Topps

The Yankees have signed Chien-Ming Wang to a $5 million contract for the 2009, thereby avoiding arbitration with the first of their four arb-eligible players (Xavier Nady, Melky Cabrera, and Brian Bruney are the other three). The contract in and of itself is insignificant. Wang made $4 million last year, but missed the second half of the season with a lisfranc fracture in his foot and thus only got a $1 million raise. No big deal. I do, however, find the Yankees’ treatment of Wang’s arbitration years interesting.

Last year, Wang and Robinson Cano both became eligible for arbitration for the first time. With Cano asking for $4.55 million in 2008, the Yankees decided to buy out his arbitration years entirely with a four-year, $30 million contract. Wang, meanwhile, asked for $4.6 million and the Yankees took him to arbitration to save $600,000 and beat him.

To me, that says alot about the Yankees’ relative enthusiasm for these two players. That’s not to say that they don’t value Wang on a year-to-year basis, but Wang is 2 1/2 years older than Cano and, while its easy to forget even following his foot injury this past season, he has a less than rosy injury history.

Way back in 2001, labrum surgery cost Wang all of his second professional season, forcing him to restart at short-season Staten Island at age 22 in 2002. In his rookie season of 2005, he was shut down in mid-July with another labrum scare that, fortunately, turned out to be solved by his simply spending two months on the DL. In 2007, he started the season on the DL with a hamstring strain suffered in spring training, and last year he broke his foot running the bases in Houston, ending his season after just 15 starts. Thus, Wang has avoided the DL in just one of his four major league seasons.

Beyond those injuries, Wang is also sometimes looked upon with suspicion because of his poor strikeout rates. He has been able to succeed despite striking out just 4.02 men per nine inning on his career (against a league average of 6.48) because of his extreme ground-ball rate, but there’s a sense that that balance will not hold indefinitely. Fortunately, Wang managed to increase his strikeout rate in both 2007 and 2008, topping out at 5.12 K/9 last year thanks to the coaching of Dave Eiland, who had him working in more sliders when he needed a K. Unfortunately, Wang’s walk rates have risen as well, so that his K/BB ratio has held relatively steady near his career sub-par 1.58 mark (league average is 2.01).

On top of concerns about his fragility and effectiveness, there’s age. Wang was 25 as a rookie and will be 29 this season. That’s certainly not old, but he’s several months older than both CC Sabathia and  Josh Beckett. Wang’s arbitration years will take him to age 30, where as Cano’s contract is only guaranteed through his age-28 season. It seems to me that this is the primary reason why the Yankees are taking Wang year-by-year, but went ahead and bought out Cano’s arbitration years in bulk.

There’s another thing that strikes me about Wang’s new one-year deal. It seems unlikely that Wang’s value is going to be lower next year than it is now. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Yankees to try to negotiate a two-year deal and thereby preemptively suppress Wang’s 2010 salary based on his injury-shortened 2008 season? Perhaps having failed to get a multi-year deal out of the Yankees last year, Wang and his agents wouldn’t agree to such a thing. Still, I think the fact that the Yankees continue to go year-by-year with Wang supports a notion I had when the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett for five years:

The Yankees don’t intend to re-sign Chien-Ming Wang after he becomes a free agent.

Think about it. Sabathia is signed for at least three years and possibly seven. Burnett is signed for five years. Joba Chamberlain is well on his way to establishing himself in the rotation. That’s three spots in the 2011 rotation that are already spoken for. Wang will become a free agent following the 2010 season. If the Yankees can, over the next two years, develop just two more young arms (with Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Zach McAllister being the top candidates), there’s no room for Wang in 2011, and no need to pay a free-agent salary to a player whose arbitration years the Yankees wouldn’t even buy out. Even if the Yankees only develop one more starter by 2011, that leaves just one empty spot in the 2011 rotation, and there’s a good chance that they will be able to find a better way to fill that last spot than to give a big-money, long-term deal to a 31-year-old Chien-Ming Wang.

Of course, when it comes to pitching anything can happen. It could be that none of the pitchers above is healthy or productive enough to claim a rotation spot in 2011. Projecting pitching even just three years into the future is a dangerous game, but the way everything looks right now, I think we’re only going to see Wang in pinstripes for two more years. Enjoy him while you can.

Tags:  Chien-Ming Wang  Transactions

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1 The Hawk   ~  Dec 23, 2008 11:39 am

I call bunk on this injury history. Hamstring pulls and baserunning accidents do not make a very scary injury resume. The labrum injury seems to have been solved almost seven years ago, aside from a 2005 incident that required no treatment at all. It just doesn't add up, for me.

The other major issue cited above, strikeout ratio, is one of those overrated statistics. It means a lot when you're, you know, a strikeout pitcher, but obviously that's not Wang's style.

I'm not arguing the Yankees need to keep Wang but I'm not sure why they wouldn't given his track record. I can't see how you could look at his body of work and decided he's expendable ... Sure he had a rough postseason in 2007 but so did Sabathia (and again in 08).

I do see how he might get pushed out by the young arms coming up but I wouldn't bet on it; anyway at this point he is a classic example of bird in the hand.

2 The 13th   ~  Dec 23, 2008 11:52 am

Back in 2005, I was of the mind the Yankees should trade him before the rest of the league figures him out. Fortunately, I have no say in their decision making process. Wang's become one of my favorite players. Not only does he seem like a good guy, but there's just something about watching him pitch which I find aesthetically pleasant. Give me eight innings of Wang with Mo for the ninth, and that is a beautiful game.

3 sonyahennystutu   ~  Dec 23, 2008 11:56 am

IMHO the Yanks should absolutely have used this years generally depressed market rates - combined with CMW's injury shortened season - to buy out his arb years AND at least one year of FA at a relative market discount. You can NEVER have too much starting pitching. And 1-2 years of free agency would *still* put him only in his early 30s.

I think we will pay, and dearly, because I *do* think we will sign him, because I *do* think he will continue to have success here despite what you cite as questionable peripherals (and a less questionable injury history IMO), and I do *not* think we will develop two quality starting pitching arms in the next 2 years.

Put another way - after he goes 19-8 (again) this year, we will give him a 3 year deal that will be more expensive than a 4 year deal would've been now.

4 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 23, 2008 12:00 pm

I just want to point out that I'm not saying I agree with this approach necessarily, just that I believe we've seen signs of the Yankees' intentions here and these are the reasons why I believe they're handling Wang the way they are.

5 The Hawk   ~  Dec 23, 2008 12:04 pm

[4] Ha, I knew that and had a feeling you were going to feel like a shot messenger. I think I can speak for every human being on earth when I say "You're okay, buddy!"

6 sonyahennystutu   ~  Dec 23, 2008 12:04 pm

[4] I hear that and fair enough :)

FOr now I'll admit I'm all kinds of pins and needles on the Tex situation. . .

7 Diane Firstman   ~  Dec 23, 2008 12:08 pm

CMW is a rare breed ... look at his comparable pitchers ... mostly from the 40s and 50s


8 Diane Firstman   ~  Dec 23, 2008 12:09 pm


scratch that .... his comparables are all over the map in terms of decades ...

9 pugzilla   ~  Dec 23, 2008 12:51 pm

Let's hope that The Wanger is worth every cent of that $5 million; same goes for the Greenback twins!

10 Bum Rush   ~  Dec 23, 2008 1:39 pm

Sorry, but I think the Yankees' intentions are much easier to discern: They don't want to set a precedent with pitchers given their unique status year-to-year and the depth of the system. For Cano, it could be another five years when they have a similar decision w/r to a prospect position player. With Joba, Hughes, and even IPK it could be a few years sooner when they have the option of buying out a young pitcher through their arbitration years. The fact is, however, during the first six years you just never know what could happen to a pitching prospect. Better to play much more conservative there, and see how they establish themselves, than to commit too soon.

For instance, imagine Wang hurts his arm this year. Would saving a few million really matter to the Yankees?

11 ms october   ~  Dec 23, 2008 2:46 pm

i agree with you in [4] cliff - i also think that is the yankees mindet and the burnett signing advanced that thought and i don't think it *should* be the approach - though as bum rush said in [10] i also do understand with the pitching depth and a desire to take a conservative approach why the yanks signed him for just a year.

12 Dimelo   ~  Dec 23, 2008 3:29 pm

John Heyman is saying Yanks signed Tex for 8 years at 180 million. WOW!

13 Pete   ~  Dec 24, 2008 10:06 am

I don't see it that way, Cliff — I just think the Yanks are being cheap where they can, considering the money they just laid out this winter. Look at the Pettitte situation - it's 100% obvious he wants to come back, but we lowball him anyway.

They'd be nuts to let a guy go who can pitch this well in NY.

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