LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Chien-Ming Wang will turn 35 just a few days prior to the Atlanta Braves breaking camp and heading to regular-season action. If all goes well, Wang’s birthday gift to himself will be a steady job.
After Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller and Mike Minor, the Braves need someone to emerge as the team’s fifth starter. Atlanta packed its spring training roster to get a look at as many options as it could.
"We’re coming in with a little bigger camp," said President of Baseball Operations John Hart. "You guys can see we probably have more in camp."
Including non-roster invitees, the Braves are hosting 67 players in camp. That number includes 10 catchers, 13 infielders, 11 outfielders and 33 pitchers, at least six of which have some shot at winning the starting job at the back end of Atlanta’s rotation.
While there are the young, newly-acquired arms like Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz, there is also James Russell, who still wants to fight for the rotation spot, but could land in the bullpen. There are also three non-roster invitees: Wandy Rodriguez, Eric Stults and Wang.
It was competition and Atlanta’s attitude toward an open position battle that drew Wang to sign with the Braves.
"(They) said here there was more chances to fight for the fifth spot," said Wang. "So, better chance here than other teams."
Wang picked the Braves over two other teams that wanted him in camp. He said the opportunity was better in Atlanta. Because of that opportunity, Wang put in some extra time prior to his arrival.
As a warming-up process for spring training, Wang pitched against live batting two times. He said the outings we’re just "OK’" and he still has work to do. The areas of concern Wang said needed to be addressed were command and pitch movement. That’s his focus as pitchers and catchers have already begun workouts.
Wang also has to make sure he has gas left in the tank.
After an unsuccessful spring last season, he was assigned to the minors in the Reds system. He made 28 starts and posted a 13-8 record with a 4.13 ERA, but was never able to make the jump to the majors. He hasn’t made more than 11 major-league starts in any season since 2008, and hasn’t pitched to big-league hitters since August of 2013.
"Everything is good. Everything is fine," said Wang about his health. "I already threw two bullpens (in spring training) and everything, and I felt good."
The last time Wang was truly effective in the majors was in 2011 with the Nationals. He was 4-3 in 11 starts with a 4.04 ERA. His ERA+ of 95 was almost equal to his combined total of 104 for the 2012 and 2013 seasons where he made 11 starts.
If Wang can show the Braves that he can reclaim 2011 levels on the mound, he has a shot at the final spot in the rotation. But it’s been a long time since he’s made 30 starts in the majors (2007). On top of command and movement, Wang must show he’s ready to survive the rigors of seven months of baseball at its highest level.