Desperate Blue Jays turn to Chien-Ming Wang to help rotation
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Chien-Ming Wang’s Yankee homecoming. On Friday, the 33-year-old righty exercised an opt-out clause in his minor league contract so he could sign with the Blue Jays, who have already used an MLB-high 11 starting pitchers this year due to injuries. Despite having little success in the majors over the past five years and generating lukewarm scouting reports this year at Triple-A, Wang will take the ball for Toronto on Tuesday against the White Sox.
Once upon a time, Wang was a rotation mainstay for the Yankees. Over a span just longer than three years — from April 15, 2005 to June 15, 2008 — the Taiwainese righty made 95 starts and two relief appearances, pitching to a 3.79 ERA (117 ERA+) and notching 54 wins, including back-to-back 19-win seasons in 2006 and 2007. He was the runner-up to Johan Santana in the AL Cy Young voting in 2006, accompanying his high win total with a 3.63 ERA but striking out just 3.1 per nine innings. Compensating for his lack of a swing-and-miss offering was a mid-90s sinker that drew comparisons to a bowling ball for all the difficulty batters had in elevating it. Via FanGraphs, Wang’s 0.5 homers per nine ranked as the majors’ lowest during that span, and his 2.77 groundball-to-flyball ratio was the fourth-highest.
Running the bases during an interleague game on June 15, 2008, Wang suffered a Lisfranc injury and a partially torn tendon in his right foot, and he’s never been the same. Hip and shoulder injuries — perhaps related to compensating for the foot injury — limited him to 42 innings with a grisly 9.64 ERA in 2009 before undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his shoulder (the same injury to which Santana later succumbed) in July 2009. Non-tendered later that year, he spent 2010 through 2012 battling further injuries and ineffectiveness with the Nationals, throwing a total of 94 2/3 major league innings with a 4.94 ERA and ugly peripherals: 1.2 homers, 2.7 walks and 3.8 strikeouts per nine. In five starts and five relief appearances with Washington last year, he put up a 6.68 ERA, and allowed 15 runs over his final 15 innings. His sinker has averaged just over 91.4 mph during that span, down from 94.1 in 2007, the year PITCHf/x was introduced.
Wang has put up a superficially impressive 2.33 ERA in 58 innings over nine starts at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but again with a low strikeout rate (3.9 per nine) and mediocre velocity. In late May, Donnie Collins of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Times-Tribune noted that Wang’s sinker sat at 87-89 mph, occasionally touching 90-91. Earlier in the month, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was reluctant to promote Wang amid injuries to the big club’s staff; here’s what he told LoHud’s Chad Jennings in early May:
“He’s not the power sinker he used to be, but we believe he needs to mix in more of his breaking balls to have the type of success necessary to pitch up here consistently… He needs to incorporate some of his pitches in there and mix and match because he’s that reduced in velocity. His lines have been very nice and good, but he’s working on all his weapons because what he’s doing down there wouldn’t represent necessarily what we think he could do up here right now.”
Wang had contractual opt-outs on April 30 and May 31, but even with six teams interested as of the latter date, none was willing to offer a major league deal. Since then, the Blue Jays lost Brandon Morrow to a forearm strain and Ramon Ortiz to what may be a career-ending elbow injury. With two days off this week, they optioned Chad Jenkins to Triple-A Buffalo to keep him stretched out; it’s his slot Wang will fill.
Expected to be a strength as they competed for a playoff spot, the Blue Jays’ rotation has been an ongoing catastrophe, with the league’s worst ERA (5.32), second-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.76) and third-worst quality start rate (41 percent). Marquee winter acquisitions R.A. Dickey (4.66 ERA), Mark Buehrle (5.42 ERA) and Josh Johnson (5.40 ERA) haven’t pitched to nearly their capability, though the latter is finally back in action after missing more than five weeks due to triceps inflammation. Morrow (5.63 ERA) disappointed as well, and expected fifth starter Ricky Romero, who underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow after posting a 5.77 ERA in 2012, is lost amid control problems; he just ditched his new mechanics after allowing 26 runs and walking 20 batters in 19 innings at Triple-A. Fill-in J.A. Happ suffered a skull fracture and sprained knee after being hit in the head by a line drive a few weeks ago, and spot starters Aaron Laffey, Sean Nolin and Esmil Rogers have combined to allow eight runs in 7 1/3 innings over three starts.
Thus the willingness of the 25-34 Blue Jays to take a gamble on Wang in the hopes that he can buy them some time until the staff is in better health. He may not be the same pitcher he was in 2006-2007, but for the moment, he’s still in one piece .