Could Chien-Ming Wang be Nats' ace in the hole?

VIERA, Fla. - Two days ago, after watching Chien-Ming Wang throw two innings in an intrasquad game, manager Davey Johnson declared that the veteran right-hander looked to be stronger than he was at the end of last season, when he made 11 starts for the Nationals after recovering from a shoulder injury.

"He looks like the old Chien-Ming," Johnson confidently stated.

The old Chien-Ming was a workhorse, a top-of-the-rotation guy with the Yankees, who won 19 games in both 2006 and 2007, averaging 209 innings pitched in those seasons with an ERA in the 3.6-3.7 range.

Wang was able to work deep into games because he kept the ball on the ground with his heavy sinker, and he led the American League in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings in both of those years.

If the Chien-Ming Wang the Nationals get this season is anywhere near the Chien-Ming Wang we saw in '06 or '07, Johnson will spend many of his days this summer smiling from ear to ear.

The Nats likely won't need Wang to win 19 games this season. It sure would be nice, and Johnson won't turn that number down, but with the other arms projected to join Wang in the rotation, the team would gladly take 10-12 wins and a season of full health.

With Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson atop the Nats' rotation and John Lannan - who led the team in wins in 2011 - around as well, there will be minimal pressure on Wang to turn out a big win total.

Obviously, as Johnson has said numerous times the last week, "It's so dang early." Wang has yet to even appear in a Grapefruit League game and is far from out of the woods when it comes to his health. It'd be unfair to slot the righty in for 160 innings this season when he's thrown just 199 1/3 innings in his last four years combined.

But there's a sense of hope around Nats camp that if he continues on his current track, Wang could be a big part of this team's staff.

Asked after his intrasquad appearance if he feels he could contribute at the level he once did with the Yankees, Wang played things cool.

"I just want to look at the positive side, do my best and then work out as hard as I can and build up my arm strength," Wang said. "We will see. I just want to perform."

The good news is, the Nats won't expect a whole lot, and Wang has the potential to give them plenty.

Dan Kolko was named MASNsports.com's Nationals beat writer after spending the last four years covering the Baltimore Ravens for MASN and also serving as the Web site's deputy managing editor. A University of Delaware graduate originally from Silver Spring, Md., Dan grew up a die-hard baseball fan and is thrilled for the opportunity to cover the Nationals. Before joining MASN, Dan worked in production at Comcast SportsNet in Bethesda, Md., and also interned at the "George Michael Sports Machine" in Washington, D.C.

Follow Dan Kolko on Twitter: @DanKolko

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