As we continue to wonder about what the Dodgers will to do round out their starting rotation, there remains the possibility that some other team ends up with Masahiro Tanaka, if the posting system ever gets worked out, or trades for David Price, or gives Ricky Nolasco some ridiculous contract. If so, they might need to look in another direction, and while some say “Chad Billingsley & Josh Beckett & Zach Lee & Ross Stripling will be fine!” I say no; I say the Dodgers need another starter. And so I say: hey, what about Dan Haren?
I actually said that — those words, exactly — about 10 days ago, but you’re not reading them until now, because it’s been sitting in my drafts folder. But then I included Haren in a “good buy-low values” piece I posted to ESPN yesterday, and then Mark Saxon noted that there has been contact between the team and pitcher, and so it’s time to actually take a look.
You know Haren, mostly. For years he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, putting up 34.6 fWAR and a 3.49 ERA between 2005-11. He also couldn’t stay in one place. A 2001 draftee of St. Louis, he was sent to Oakland in the 2004 Mark Mulder deal, then to Arizona in the 2007 deal that also included Carlos Gonzalez & Brett Anderson, then to Anaheim in 2010 in a deal that looked like a steal for the Angels at the time, but is much less so now that Patrick Corbin & Tyler Skaggs are helping in Arizona.
After a down season in 2012, the Angels tried to trade him to the Cubs last winter for future friend Carlos Marmol, but the deal suddenly fell apart. He ended up signing with Washington for one year and $13m, giving the Nationals what appeared to be a terrifyingly good front four along with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez.
On the surface, his year in DC doesn’t seem great. Haren had arguably his worst season with Washington last year, putting up a 4.67 ERA, a 4.90 FIP, and pitching 169.2 innings, his fewest since he became a full-time starter in 2005. His velocity, which was once in the low 90s, now averaged about 88 MPH. His ground ball rate declined from 42.5% to 39.6% to 36%. This is all bad. When he went on the disabled list in June, his ERA stood at 6.15, and while it was officially a sore shoulder that sidelined him, it was completely clear to all involved that it was more about simply getting him a mental health break.
Haren later explained what he was going through in the Washington Post:
Loneliness was the worst part, Dan Haren said. At his lowest point, Haren walked off the Nationals Park mound to boos from home fans – “I don’t wish that upon anybody,” he said – and carried the worst ERA in the majors. His wife and two young children were at home in California. He agonized about what his teammates thought about his performance. When he went home, his house was empty, aside from him and his nasty thoughts.
(snip) Haren prepared himself to pitch on the East Coast for the first time, but it was more difficult than he expected. His wife, 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter visited him twice during spring training and four times during the year. His boy started kindergarten with him on the other side of the country.
That’s the human toll of playing this game at a high level that we often can’t see, and while Haren insisted it didn’t affect his performance, it’s easy to see how it could have weighed on him.
When Haren returned in July, he knew that he almost certainly wouldn’t be back in 2014, and he was a completely different pitcher. In 15 remaining starts, his ERA was 3.29; his line against was .228/.271/.355; his K/BB was 84/18. His HR/9 dropped from an awful 1.84 to an acceptable 1.06; his GB% increased by 3%.
More, the Steamer projection system actually likes him quite a bit:
Dan Haren still has a lot of potential.
Haren was supposed to be a bounce back guy last year, only he didn’t bounce back, so it’s easy to assume that he won’t ever bounce back. But Steamer is not deterred, forecasting Haren as a +3 WAR pitcher for 2014, better than every other free agent starter besides A.J. Burnett and Hiroki Kuroda. It likes Haren more than Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, two other bounce back guys from last winter who actually did bounce back. Assuming that Haren’s going to come in slightly under what Tim Hudson just got — the Giants likely chose Hudson over Haren — Steamer thinks he might be the bargain of the winter.
While Haren is realistic about how much say he’ll have in his next job after two lousy years, it seems clear that he’d really prefer to pitch on the West Coast, and a park that’s pitcher friendly would suit him. But the Giants have already spent on Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, and Javier Lopez, so they seem to be out, and San Diego already picked up their lottery ticket in Josh Johnson.
So why not the Dodgers? As has been discussed here and elsewhere, it’s probably Tanaka or bust as far as a rotation upgrade. Everyone else is either unattainable (like, probably, Price) or flawed. And Haren is flawed. There’s no question about it. But if you’re asking me, is Nolasco very clearly going to be better than Haren in 2013, well, I have to stop and think about that one for a while. I’m still not sure I know the answer, though I know that Nolasco is going to get something like eight times the guaranteed money Haren is.
Jim Bowden, who’s pretty good at this sort of thing, guessed 1/$8m. Jon Heyman and his scout & GM all guessed one year between $6.5m and $8m. That’s what Johnson got from the Padres, and his arm might not even still be attached to his torso. In a world where Lincecum actually got $35m over two years from San Francisco, one year and $8m is a pretty reasonable gamble, especially for the team with a bottomless payroll. For a fourth starter, which is what he’d be, that’s fine.
The only thing is that you can easily see two of his former teams, the Angels & Diamondbacks, wanting to add him as well, and they offer familiarity as well as geographic comfort. That might push the price to two years, or at least to one with a vesting option.
Frankly, I hope it’s Tanaka, just for the absurdity of a front four that would make the rotation. But if it’s not, I’d rather take a low-cost gamble on Haren than a high-cost one on Nolasco, or Santana, or someone similar. It’s not exciting, but it works. Sometimes, that’s all you need.