We all know tonight is a make-or-break start for Chien-Ming Wang. Pitch well, stay in the rotation. Pitch poorly, see ya! It's back to the bullpen while Phil Hughes returns to the rotation.
I think you have to root for Wang to rediscover the form that made him one of the American League's best pitchers for 21/2 seasons. No matter whether you think Hughes belongs in the rotation, at AAA or right where he is, the best-case scenario for the Yankees is to have Wang pitching effectively in the rotation.
Starting pitching was supposed to be a strength for the Yankees after they spent all that money on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. Yet, the Yankees have the fourth-worst ERA in baseball (4.81). The high-priced starting rotation has pitched to an even higher 4.86 ERA.
Wang, of course has been a huge part of that. He has been historically inept with his 14.34 ERA and 2.67 WHIP. So bad in fact that his career ERA is now 4.14 and his career WHIP is 1.34. That despite never pitching to an ERA higher than 4.07 or a WHIP higher than 1.32 prior to this season.
When you look for how this Yankee rotation can make dramatic improvement the rest of the 2009 season, Wang holds the key.
Entering the season, arguably Wang would have been looked at as the No. 2 starter. Some might argue that would be Burnett, but it doesn't really matter. Either way, he was expected to be part of a dominant big three.
Let's get away from CMW and look at the rest of the Yankee starters for a minute. I will leave Sabathia out of this, since he is clearly as advertised.
- Burnett (5-3, 4.46): He has been up and down, absolutely dominant in some games and absolutely awful in others. Look past his career season in 2008 and this is a lot closer to the pitcher Burnett has been throughout his career. He should be a little better the rest of the way, but it's pretty much what you see is what you get.
Pettitte (6-3, 4.52 ERA, 1.59 WHIP): That's a ridiculously high WHIP, easily the highest of Pettitte's career. We all want to believe Pettitte is better than this, but how much? He hasn't posted a WHIP below 1.41 since 2005, and at this point in his career he is pretty much an average pitcher.
- Joba Chamberlain (3-1, 3.84): A little bit like Burnett, Joba has been awesome at times and awful at times. Sometimes within the same game. He will remain a starter unless he hits his innings limit later this season, and he is en route to being a very good one. But, is it fair to expect dominance every five days from a 23-year-old in his first full season of starting at the big-league level? No matter how good his stuff is, I think not.
- Phil Hughes (3-2, 5.13): We have to include him in this conversation. Much like Chamberlain, Hughes is still learning his craft. We all love the arm, we all love the makeup and we love the potential. We have seen flashes of brilliance. But, should Hughes, 22, return to the rotation can we expect him to morph into a dominant front-of-the-rotation guy right away? As with Chamberlain, I think not.
All of that brings us back to Wang. The guy has been an ace, he went 46-15 over a 21/2-year period, he's still just 29 and last week he showed he can still throw 94-95 miles per hour.
The Yankees have not gotten the kind of consistent, dominant starting pitching they expected thus far in 2009. Their best chance of getting it the rest of the way is for Wang to find the form that once made him one of the game's best pitchers, instead of one of its historically worst.
So, tonight is a huge night. I'm rooting for CMW to be dominant.