The Washington Times - August 20, 2011, 11:45PM

This afternoon, Chien-Ming Wang will make his fifth major league start of the season and fifth since signing a $2 million deal with the Nationals before the 2010 season (and then another $1 million pact this past year). 

As they have been for the past four starts, what Nationals manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty will be looking for is improvement. So far, so good with the sinkerballer.

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“His in-between sessions have been better, cripser,” Johnson said of McCatty’s report from earlier this week. “I knew it was going to be a work in progress. Just kind of knew his background. The more time he gets to pitch and work on the side, as far as I’m concerned, he’s just going to get better.”

To this point, Wang is 2-2 with a 4.22 ERA. He’s faced the Mets, the Braves, the Cubs and the Reds — the last two with much more success than the first two. He’s rediscovered his conviction in his sinker and he’s been able to prove, as Johnson put it, “that he can still win up here.”

So as Wang continues to put it together — and assuming that progression continues — the question arises: does he fit with the Nationals in 2012? The Nationals look primed to have some serious competition for their five rotation spots, and their bullpen for that matter, with their growing stable of young arms coming into camp next spring. Wang, at best, would be the fourth or fifth starter on a staff that has already locked in (most likely) Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan in their top three spots. 

If he can look more like the 19-game winner he once was, Wang would be a valuable asset. If he’s still a rehabilitation project at that point, the Nationals could be better off without him.

Johnson, for one, would welcome the former on his staff (or whoever is managing next spring’s staff) in a heartbeat.

“Hopefully he’ll enjoy pitching here in Washington and we’ll be his No. 1 choice,” Johnson said of the impending free agent. “If he gains his form back and keeps progressing, it’s probably going to come down to ‘Can we afford him?’… As far as I’m concerned, it’s a happy ending, regardless of what happens next year.

“But with how accommodating we’ve been and all that, hopefully we’ll be high on the list… My only concern is every time he starts for us and his progress. If you’d told any he’d be 2-2 with an earned run average around 4 and around to start the next five starts, I think everybody would be ecstatic.”