Following an 85-pitch, six-inning outing against the Atlanta Braves last September in which soon-to-turn 32-year-old right-hander Chien-Ming Wang held the Nats' desperate and tumbling NL East rivals to one run on four hits in a 4-1 Washington Nationals' win, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson publicly endorsed the idea of bringing the veteran of six MLB campaigns back for a third year in the nation's capital. After five seasons pitching for the New York Yankees following his MLB debut in April of 2005, Wang underwent surgery to, "repair the capsule (the fibrous membrane that surrounds the joint) in his right shoulder," in 2009. He wouldn't step on a major league mound again for two years, finally returning to the hill this past July. In his first seven starts and 38.2 IP with the Nationals, Wang gave up 41 hits, 13 walks, five HR's and 25 runs total, 18 earned, while striking out just nine batters. In his last four starts and 23.2 IP, culminating in the win over the Braves, Wang struck out 19 and gave up 26 hits, 10 runs and three home runs without allowing a walk.
"The last couple of games he's started," the Nationals' 68-year-old skipper excitedly told reporters after the win over Atlanta, "He started a lot sharper early in the game, so that tells me he's getting loose easier and he's trusting it, but I think the best is yet to come from him. He's had a great comeback, I love where he's at and I look forward to [him] signing over the winter and he'll be back with us next year." The Nats' manager didn't stop there. "If you'd seen him throw in December," the Nats' manager continued, "and where he is right now, it's just...my hat goes off to him, he worked hard and he's a dominant pitcher. He looks great." Asked if he thought the right-hander should be brought back for another season in Washington, Johnson was clear. "No doubt about it," Johnson told reporters, "I mean, if I'm here, he can have my salary."
Davey Johnson didn't have to forfeit his salary to get the right-hander back as an option for his 2012 rotation. The Nationals signed Wang to a 1-year/$4M dollar deal last November, a few days after he officially became a free agent. "We all loved what Chien-Ming Wang brought to the ballclub and what he brought to the clubhouse," D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said after annoucing the deal, "He's the ultimate, consumate professional and really is a good mentor and a good role model for our young pitchers." Signing Wang gave the Nationals depth in the rotation that allowed them to eventually make a trade for 26-year-old A's left-hander Gio Gonzalez in a deal that sent two major-league-ready arms in righty Brad Peacock and left-hander Tom Milone to Oakland. The Nats then signed right-handed free agent Edwin Jackson.
In spite of the Nationals' enthusiasm for what Wang's accomplished as he's worked his way back to the majors, the general manager told reporters that they'd acquired Gonzalez and Jackson because they felt they had an innings shortage and a few questions marks in the rotation. "Stephen Strasburg's going to be on some sort of pitch limit," Rizzo said, "Jordan Zimmermann is coming off a 160-inning season, has never pitched 200.0 innings in the big leagues. Chien-Ming Wang [is] coming off a couple years of inactivity and hasn't really stretched his arm out for a long period of time."
"We really don't know what we're going to get out of [Wang]," the Nats' GM explained in an MLB Network Radio interview earlier this month, "He hasn't pitched deep into a season in a long time, so we're counting on Gio Gonzalez for 200 [IP], now we've got another 200 [inning] guy we can count on in Edwin Jackson." The Nationals have seven starters (and a few fringe-y options) competing for five rotation spots this Spring. Washington was reportedly considering trading one of their starters for the outfield bat they've been after, with John Lannan's name mentioned before the Nationals signed Jackson. The front office's insistence that depth was a good problem to have this time of year was reinforced, however, when the first reports on Wang this Spring said he had some "shoulder stiffness" after throwing early in camp, though it wasn't, "considered serious," as MLB.com's Bill Ladson reported.
The Nationals were not concerned and neither was the pitcher, they simply adjusted Wang's "workload" as the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore wrote last week in an article entitled, "Chien-Ming Wang taking it slow, not a bigger story than Jeremy Lin in Taiwan":
"Rather than throwing a 10-minute side session every other day, like the rest of the team, Wang will throw one day, then take two days off before throwing again; he’ll throw his second bullpen tomorrow."
After watching Wang throw on Monday, CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman reported, in an article entitled, "Wang lively throwing live BP", that the Nationals were happy with what they saw, "The consensus: Wang was sharp, maybe sharper than he's been in a long time." After he'd made what was one of his two strongest starts of the year last September against the Braves, the Nationals' manager said he was eager to see what a healthy Chien-Ming Wang could do with a full winter off in which he was healthy. "I think going through a winter where he doesn't have to go to physical therapy to just try to get rid of the pain," Johnson said at the time "I think when he comes to Spring Training next year I think he'll feel fresh as a daisy, and I hope I see it in Viera." He was throwing in front of Johnson, Rizzo, pitching coach Steve McCatty and the Nats' trainer on Monday and everyone who watched Chien-Ming Wang liked what they saw.
If Wang remains healthy, he's considered the front-runner to claim the fifth spot in the Nationals' rotation on Opening Day since he can't be dealt until later in the season after signing as a free agent and doesn't work out of the pen with the time it takes him to get his surgically-repaired shoulder loose. Ross Detwiler, who's one of two lefties along with John Lannan competing with Wang for the final spot at the start of the season, has no options left. Lannan does, but he's going to make $5M dollars this Spring, and the two-time Opening Day starter's been one of the Nats' more-reliable starters over the last few seasons. Will Washington really send Lannan to Syracuse? How will he react if they do? Wang hasn't pitched a full season since he won 19 games for the second-straight year in 2007. The Nationals might not want to go trading any starters just yet, but the early returns on Chien-Ming Wang are encouraging.