After a year and a half of watching Chien-Ming Wang rehab without throwing a pitch in the majors - and spending the first year of that time waiting for him to throw a pitch in a real game, period - the Nationals will finally get to see him in their rotation Friday.
The team announced last night that Wang will start Friday against the Mets, returning to the majors almost two years to the day after he had shoulder surgery July 29, 2009. The Nationals have repeatedly said they haven't seen a torn labrum as severe as Wang's injury in baseball, with general manager Mike Rizzo comparing it only to the injury New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees sustained when he was with the San Diego Chargers in 2005. But after two years, and two contracts totaling $3 million in base salary from the Nationals, Wang will finally pitch in a Washington uniform.
So what can the Nationals expect from him? That remains to be seen. He's pitched as many as five innings in a minor league game, and his sinker has touched 94 mph at least occasionally, though it's sitting in the low 90s. Wang was a Cy Young runner-up in 2006, though his back-to-back 19-win seasons in 2006 and 2007 were aided by the fact he was pitching for the Yankees. Still, he had ERAs of 3.63 and 3.70 those two years, and if his stuff comes back, he might be able to give the Nationals at least what they've been getting from Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny in the rotation.
That's an important distinction, because it's likely one of those two pitchers that will step out of the rotation to make room for Wang. The Nationals could trade Marquis this week, getting something in return for the free agent-to-be from a team that needs a veteran pitcher for the stretch run. Or, they could move Gorzelanny out of the rotation, letting the left-hander work through his recent problems in the bullpen.
When the Nationals signed Wang last year, they were talking about having him in their rotation by the middle of the 2010 season. That quickly became a pipe dream, though, and the Nationals' medical staff began talking about how little precedent there was for an injury like Wang's.
It's unlikely they'll get anything approaching fair value for what they've paid for him the last two seasons. But if his sinker is working, he could be a solid option in the rotation and give the Nationals room to make a move. If it doesn't work, the Nationals don't have any ties to him beyond this season. And if it does, the Nationals will have to decide whether Wang, who's a free agent after this season, might be worth pursuing for 2012.
After his long rehab process, there's certainly plenty of curiosity about finally seeing Wang at Nationals Park. Whether or not he can regain the form he had in New York after such a long layoff remains to be seen, but if he can, it'd be quite the story - and it might give the Nationals something to think about for next year.