Winter Meetings Day Two: Aaron Harang Heads North

When we left off last night, the Aaron Harang signing wasn’t yet official, since it appeared Harang might be holding out for three years. This morning, Jon Heyman confirms that it’s done for two years and about $12m (though no details are out yet, you can bet that’s heavily backloaded). As you can imagine, I’m not thrilled, though I feel basically the opposite about this as I did with Jerry Hairston: Hairston is a usable piece who might not have been the best fit for the hole on this roster, while Harang fills a very real need – a veteran starter – yet might not be the best person to do so.

Harang, as you might know, was a very solid starter for Cincinnati between 2005-07, before his career fell apart with the Reds between 2008-10. That led him to the place where every troubled pitcher goes to resuscitate their career, San Diego, where the Padres gave him one year at $3m. I want to stop right here if I can, though, because I keep reading that Harang’s 2011 was a “comeback” or a “bounceback” or a “rebound”, and that’s simply not true.

Let’s look at Harang’s last three seasons in Cincinnati, where his career went south, and then his lone year in San Diego, shall we?

As you can see, he’s been largely the same pitcher over the last four years, if anything trending downward, since he’s walking more and striking out less. Not that a FIP in the 4s isn’t usable from a back-of-the-rotation guy, of course, but where is all of the business about his big comeback coming from? Oh, right: stats that don’t matter. Let’s take another look at that chart…

And there it is. Harang was only slightly better in 2011 than he was in 2010 (if even at all, since the K/BB stats are identical), but the change in ballpark environment (not to mention the improvement in the defense behind him, since the Padres were one of the better fielding teams in baseball last year) had a huge impact on his unadjusted and meaningless ERA and W/L totals.

Don’t believe me? In 17 starts at Petco last year, Harang allowed opponents to put up a line of just .240/.304/.380, largely due to a BABIP that was a below-average .252. On the road, that line shot up to .317/.374/.504, with the resulting OPS of .878 meaning that the average batter he saw away from San Diego produced like Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Alex Gordon, or Jose Reyes, all of whom put up seasons like that this year.

The Padres recognized this and declined to exercise their portion of a 1/$5m mutual option (which I’ll grant, Harang wasn’t going to accept anyway). The Dodgers apparently didn’t, and where the team that should know Harang best wouldn’t even pay 1/$5m, the Dodgers saw fit to go with 2/$12m – twice the years, and more than twice the money. Where’s your Alex Tamin now?

Worse, the contract just doesn’t make sense in the marketplace. Just take a look at Freddy Garcia, who put up very similar stats to Harang last year (FIP of 4.12 vs 4.17, K/BB of 2.13 vs 2.14) while pitching in the tough AL East; Garcia returned to the Yankees last month for one year and $5m. Or even look closer to home at the 2/$10m Chris Capuano got from the Dodgers last week. Capuano’s 2011 was arguably superior (FIP of 4.04 vs 4.17, K/BB of 3.17 vs 2.14) plus he’s a lefty who’s a few months younger than Harang, yet Harang walks away with more money. Why? There’s no other answer here than “once again, wins and ERA garnered far too much attention.”

Now, I don’t want to sound like there’s no utility to this deal at all. I didn’t want Nathan Eovaldi to start the year in the rotation, so I acknowledge the need for another starter, and it’s not like Dodger Stadium is some hitter’s paradise. Harang, if healthy (a big if, since he’s spent at least a month on the DL in each of the last four seasons) can provide some use as a starter who can put up a FIP in the mid-4′s, which doesn’t sound like much but can be harder to find than you’d think. It’s just hard to see how this helps the team win, since now that Hiroki Kuroda is gone, you have Clayton Kershaw followed by the always uncertain Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, and two guys like Ted Lilly. Sure, it’s nice to say that these guys will be fine in the NL West because they still get to pitch in San Diego and San Francisco, but you’ve now picked up three of the most homer-prone pitchers in baseball – and Kershaw alone can’t pitch every game in Colorado and Arizona.

For all the money Colletti has spent on 30+ veterans this winter, I’m not sure the team is even one game better for it. But if not better, they’re at least older and more expensive. So that’s something, right?

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