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What’s Wang With This Picture?

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On December 23, 2008 @ 11:22 am In Cliff Corcoran | Comments Disabled

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.

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