Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wang remains essential piece of the puzzle

If the 2008 season is ultimately remembered as one of frustration for Yankees fans, nothing was more ulcer-inducing than the afternoon of June 15, when Chien-Ming Wang's foot essentially exploded on the basepaths in Houston.

So many things had to fall into place for Wang to be injured so seriously that day. He attempted to sacrifice himself with a bunt but ended up on first base. After the Astros were unable to complete a force out, he found himself at second. And when Derek Jeter singled, an easy jog to home turned catastrophic. Wang tore a ligament and a tendon in his right foot -- he was finished for the year. For all intents and purposes, the Yankees were finished as well.

Fast forward to Monday. The right-hander was back on the mound in Kissimmee facing those same Houston Astros. Wang was his old self over two scoreless innings, eschewing flash for effectiveness while reporting no lingering affects of the foot injury afterward. It was a good day to be No. 40.

At first glance, Wang's place on this version of the Yankees looks very different. The right-hander served as the team's No. 1 starter the last three seasons despite the fact he was very much a No. 2 masquerading as an ace. This winter, the braintrust opened up its check book to bring in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, two high-profile names that figured to lessen the load on Taiwan's folk hero.

Here's the thing though -- the Yankees will need Wang more than ever.

It's a given that, in Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees now have two skillful pitchers in their prime. But to simply assume they'll pay immediate dividends to the franchise would be to ignore history. There have been free-agent and trade acquisitions that have succeeded instantly in the Bronx, pitchers such as Jimmy Key, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, David Wells and Mike Mussina, who came in with big expectations and immediately delivered. But there's a sordid flip side to that, names like Kenny Rogers, Jose Contreras, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, stars who found the spotlight of New York difficult to tune out.

The reality of the situation is that this is more like a 50/50 proposition. You either thrive in New York or it consumes you. I'm sure the Yankees are expecting 35-40 wins and 400+ innings out of Sabathia and Burnett. I would, too, if I coughed up a few hundred million for them. But just because they paid for 2008 production doesn't mean they'll get it. More likely than not, one or both of these new starters will fall well off the pace as they make the transition.

That's why Wang is just as important as he ever was. A typical Wang season of 18-20 wins and 210+ innings is the perfect fall back option for these Yanks. It will allow Sabathia and Burnett to get into their comfort space knowing they don't have to be lights-out each time out while giving an added level of stability and depth in the rotation not since since the dynasty.

All of which makes Wang the Yankees' ultimate safety net.

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