The Washington Nationals sign Dan Haren

After signing left-handed pitchers Zach Duke and Bill Bray on Day 1 of the MLB Winter Meetings, Tuesday morning the Washington Nationals continued their busy offseason by signing veteran right-handed starting pitcher Dan Haren to a 1-year contract reportedly worth $13 million dollars.  The Nationals starting rotation now seems established with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and the newly-signed Dan Haren rounding out potentially one of the most formidable groups in major league baseball.

Dan Haren, 32-years-old, went 12-13 last season with a 4.33 ERA, 1.291 WHIP (Walks + Hits divided by Innings Pitched), and 142 strikeouts against 38 walks over 176.2 innings in which he battled some issues with his back.  Earlier this winter the Anaheim Angels held a contract option on the 3-time All-Star for $15.5 million dollars, which the team declined choosing a $3.5 million dollar buyout instead, reportedly due to concerns about the health of his back and hip.  Then again, as recently as 2011 Haren was 16-10 with a 3.17 ERA in 34 starts and 238.1 innings pitched, and for his 10-year career, he sports a 119-97 record with a 3.66 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, a 7.6 K/9 ratio, and a 1.9 BB/9 over 1,876.2 innings pitched.  Haren throws an above-average sinker, an above-average “cutter”, and a below-average fastball to set up his swing-and-miss split-finger, which in addition to his excellent control and durability made him one of the best starting pitchers in baseball from 2005-2011.

But after such a mediocre performance last season, along with the fact that the pitching-needy Angels declined essentially to pay him 1-year and $12 million dollars causes me to pause and take a deeper look into his numbers.  His average fastball velocity decreased to 88.5mph in 2012, down from 90.0mph in 2011 and a career average of 90.8mph, and has steadily dropped about 0.5mph per year since 2007.  This year’s 1.5mph decrease may or may not have been the cause for the surge in his HR/9 ratio of 1.43 (1.05 career) and HR/FB ratio of 12.8% against a 10.5% career average.  A flyball pitcher seeing a surge in home runs is more than reason for concern, especially considering his home park last season suppresses homers.

In addition we saw his release point lower and move toward his arm-side (more 3/4s) in 2012, which could or could not be directly caused by his injuries last season, but is not a positive sign and further explains his results last season.  Finally, back and hip issues for a 32-year-old pitcher with almost 1,900 innings thrown in his major league career are difficult to overcome and act as another powerful consideration Haren’s best days are in his rearview mirror.  In spite of this, before Nationals fans lose all hope, in the second half of 2012 Haren posted a 3.58 ERA in 73 innings, allowing only 68 hits with a 4 to 1 K/BB ratio (56 to 14), and allowing for his shift from the American League to the National League, plus the potential for a flyball pitcher to play in front of a potentially elite defensive outfield of Jayson Werth/Denard Span/Bryce Harper gives him a good chance for a rebound season in 2013.

Once general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals front office declined to offer Edwin Jackson salary arbitration, this left the team with a clear need for another starting pitcher, preferably a durable, veteran, right-handed starter with a knack for pitching late into games.  This deal has a fair amount of risk to it, as Haren’s declining velocity and injuries could be warning signs that his days as an elite pitcher are finished.  If this is the case, Haren should still provide the Nationals with 190 league-average innings next year, and his contract will be seen as a slight overpayment but generally satisfactory overall (think Edwin Jackson 2012).  On the other hand, if his injury issues this past season were a 1-year problem and Haren can learn to overcome his lack of fastball velocity and further rely on his cutter and sinker to set up his split-finger in the future, Haren has the potential to function as one of the 10-15 best starting pitchers in the National League next year.

Judging a signing like this is difficult because the major variable is his health, but the fact that the Nationals limited their risk to 1-year and another season of decline phase from Haren should still give the Nationals the veteran presence and innings-eater at the back end of the rotation they necessitated this winter.  However, if like Tom Selleck in the movie Mr. Baseball, the Nationals can bleed one last good season of baseball from Dan Haren in 2013, this transaction will be seen as the best move of the Winter Meetings and perhaps all of this offseason.  Therefore, because of the relatively limited risk of this signing, the reasonably high floor for Haren’s 2013 performance, and his ability to compete for a CY Young Award when healthy make this one of the better transactions thus far this winter.  Mike Rizzo and the Nationals should be commended for making such a potentially shrewd signing.

NatsGM Grade ->            B 

 

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