Wang begins latest comeback bid in Cincinnati camp
Former 19-game winner open to starting '14 in Minors after injuries derailed career
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Modern medical advancements have enabled surgeons to repair torn elbow ligaments and save pitching careers. A steady success rate for fixing shoulders remains elusive. For many pitchers -- even the elite ones in Major League Baseball -- they are never the same again once the scalpel is used on their shoulder.
That's the reality right-hander Chien-Ming Wang has lived with since 2009. Before his operation, he was a two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees who possessed a tough sinkerball. He's been essentially a journeyman pitcher since.
In Reds camp this year as a non-roster invitee, Wang very much wants to recapture that level of excellence again.
"I'm trying to," Wang said. "It's hard, the rehab and the throwing. After shoulder surgery, sometimes it can pinch."
Wang, who turns 34 on March 31, was signed to a Minor League contract by Cincinnati in December. He is viewed as possible depth behind the rotation.
The Taiwanese Wang went 19-6 in 2006 for the Yankees, posting a 3.63 ERA in 34 games and 218 innings to finish second in American League Cy Young Award voting. He followed up in '07 by going 19-7 with a 3.70 ERA in 30 starts and 199 1/3 innings. His '08 season was poised for more success as he finished April with a 5-0 record.
The root of Wang's derailment came not from his shoulder, but his foot. On June 15, 2008, during an Interleague game against the Astros, he tried to score on a Derek Jeter single when he stepped awkwardly near third base. The result was a torn tendon in his right foot that ended his season.
Wang's foot issue lingered into the following Spring Training and the 2009 season. He was 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA when his velocity lost its steam during his final start of that year, on July 4 against the Blue Jays. His right shoulder had given out, a byproduct of the foot injury from the previous year.
"I didn't use my legs enough," Wang said. "I didn't have the push from that leg. I was using my arm too much to throw the ball."
On July 29, 2009, Wang had season-ending surgery to repair a torn capsule in his right shoulder. The operation was performed by one of the best in the business, Dr. James Andrews, but even successful shoulder repairs don't guarantee successful shoulder comebacks.
The Nationals signed Wang for 2010, but he spent the entire season rehabbing. He did likewise for the start of the '11 season, but worked his way back through the Minors. He made 11 starts for Washington in '11, then spent much of '12 back on the disabled list and appeared in only 10 games (five starts).
Wang was given another shot by the Yankees last season before he was granted his release from their Triple-A affiliate in June to allow him another big league shot with the Blue Jays. He had a 2.61 ERA and pitched into at least the seventh inning over his first three starts. After that, Wang was beaten up in back-to-back games and failed to get out of the second inning. He was sent to Triple-A and returned for only one more three-inning start, and a loss, for Toronto in August.
"My fastball average hasn't got there yet," Wang said. "Last year, it was 89-92 [mph]. Before, it was at 94-95. I was tired. My body was tired. Last year, I pitched in the [World Baseball Classic for Taiwan]. I had two years with no stopping."
This spring in Reds camp, Wang still attracts interest from the Taiwanese media that documents his early bullpen sessions and workouts with the club.
Reds manager Bryan Price has yet to draw any conclusions from what he's seen from Wang thus far.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him against hitters," Price said. "With a veteran guy, you don't want to bring him in here and make any assumptions too early in camp. That being said, he's a veteran pitcher that had a lot of success on the front end of that Yankee career and has had to deal with some injuries since. I'm a big believer that if we see something as a [coaching] staff that can help him improve his consistency, we need to acknowledge it."
Wang's shoulder has been healthy to this point, and he has shown the team he might still have something left in his arm.
"Shoulders are a challenge ,but the one thing that hasn't gone away is the sink on his fastball," Price said. "For any pitcher, consistency is a huge thing -- for him, bottom of the zone command, strikes. He's got a changeup and curveball that are both good pitches. I'm looking forward to seeing how the hitters respond to him. He's the type of guy I feel like has room to get better."
Wang has out clauses in his contract on May 31 and June 30 if he's not on a Major League roster. Satisfied with his new team, he is looking to stick around.
"I will do what the team wants me to do," Wang said. "I would go to the Minor Leagues and start in the Minor Leagues."