By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; D03
Throughout the first portion of the offseason, the Washington Nationals remodeled their team by signing a half-dozen free agents, each serving a particular purpose and place. But the Nationals, on Tuesday, opted for a far different strategy in making what is likely their final major move of the winter, signing a pitcher whose payoff is hard to project and tantalizing to imagine.
Chien-Ming Wang is less a purchase than a gamble. The former New York Yankees ace, now trying to recover from shoulder surgery, agreed to a contract with the Nationals on Tuesday, according to a team source. Wang will earn $2 million in 2010 and can earn up to $3 million in incentives. He has already passed a physical.
Washington plans to announce the signing at a news conference Friday at its spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla., stamping the official pitcher-catcher report date with a celebrated arrival.
But predicting Wang's role with Washington beyond that requires some guesswork.
If the right-hander regains his form, he becomes a relative bargain. No pitchers in the organization can match his track record, after all. Between 2006 and 2007, no pitcher in baseball won more games than Wang (38). The sinkerball specialist, who turns 30 on March 31, has a lifetime 55-26 record and a 4.16 ERA.
During the last two seasons, though, Wang lost his stature as a front-line starter. He had trouble staying on the mound, problems equally attributable to injuries and opposing batters. In June 2008, he tore a tendon in his right foot and missed the rest of the season. In 2009, he made an early trip to the disabled list because of weakness in a hip abductor muscle. Then came right shoulder surgery, performed in late July by orthopedist James Andrews.
The Yankees non-tendered Wang in December, following a season in which he earned $5 million but pitched just 12 games, going 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA.
Barring any injury setbacks, Wang could be ready to take the mound -- presumably in a minor league rehab stint -- in May. His condition, and his ability to regain his pitching touch after the shoulder procedure -- one of the harder tasks for a pitcher -- will foretell much about the competence of Washington's starting rotation.
As it stands now, the Nationals will search during spring training from a group of five or six unestablished starters to fill the last spot or two of their rotation.
But a healthy Wang, Manager Jim Riggleman said, "gives us the opportunity to add a pitcher in May or June and it's like, 'Wow, it almost feels like we just made a great [midseason] trade.' "
Riggleman, speaking Tuesday afternoon, qualified his comments on Wang by saying that he hadn't been officially told of the signing. He had only read media reports. Still, Riggleman recalled seeing Wang from the opposing dugout in 2008 as Seattle's bench coach, where he heard Mariners hitters marvel at Wang's best pitch.
"I know the comments that our hitters would make about him -- the quality of his sinker," Riggleman said. "Not only does his ball sink, he throws very hard. Just really, at that point in his career, hitters were saying it was like hitting a bowling ball."
Although Wang received a one-year contract, the Nationals, if they choose, own his rights through 2011. Next winter, the Nationals can either renegotiate a contract with Wang or use the arbitration process to determine his salary. Or, of course, they can non-tender the pitcher, again returning him to the free agent market.
In some ways, Wang already fits the Washington-pitching profile. The Nationals have assembled a cadre of starters -- Jason Marquis and John Lannan, in particular -- that depends on groundball outs as much as any staff in the league. At his best, Wang is a groundball pitcher with few peers. Within the last 10 years, only six starting pitchers have recorded single seasons with groundball-to-flyball ratios higher than 3 to 1. Wang did that in 2006, when his grounder-to-flyout ratio was 3.06.
"At his best," said Washington reliever Brian Bruney, a teammate of Wang's in New York, "he's a guy that is gonna give you a run for the Cy Young every year; that's how good his stuff is. And hopefully that's the Wanger we're getting. Because that would be a good addition to any ballclub."
Nationals notes: As a corresponding 40-man roster move to the recent signing of second baseman Adam Kennedy, the Nationals designated left-handed pitcher Doug Slaten for assignment. . . .
Bruney had his arbitration hearing Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he asked for a $1.85 million salary for 2010. The Nats argued that Bruney should earn $1.5 million. The three-person panel is expected to hand out its decision on Wednesday. Bruney, acquired in an offseason trade from the Yankees, earned $1.25 million last season, when he went 5-0 with a 3.92 ERA in 44 appearances. Relief pitcher Sean Burnett is the other Washington player with an unresolved arbitration case. He's scheduled to appear before a panel on Thursday.
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.