Tuesday, December 4, 2012
With healthy Haren, Nationals could win 100
By David Schoenfield
With a one-year deal and a back-end starting spot, pitcher Dan Haren is a no-brainer for the Nationals.
From 2007 through 2011, Dan Haren may have been the most underrated starting pitcher in baseball: He went 73-49 with a 3.33 ERA pitching for the A's, Diamondbacks and Angels. With impeccable control and a high strikeout rate despite a fastball that sat in the 90-92 range, Haren led his league three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He finished fifth in the 2009 National League Cy Young voting and seventh in the 2011 American League vote. Only CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay threw more innings over those five seasons, but he always seemed to fly under the radar.
Maybe all those innings caught up to him in 2012. He'd thrown at least 216 innings each season since 2005 -- including 235 in 2010 and 238 in 2011 -- but back and hip issues hampered him as his ERA rose to 4.33. He managed to make 30 starts, but he threw just 176.2 innings -- 62 fewer than the season before, or nearly two innings per start. The Angels declined to pick up Haren's $15.5 option, instead giving him a $3.5 million buyout and making him a free agent.
On the surface, Haren appears to be a golden opportunity for the Washington Nationals, as reports say the two sides have agreed to a one-year, $13 million deal. Haren still has to pass a physical, which isn't a sure thing. Certainly, the Angels had enough concerns about his health to let him go, and they would know his medical records better than anyone.
It's a good risk for the Nationals, however, because Haren's core skills remained intact in 2012: His strikeout rate dropped only 1 percent, from 20.2 percent to 19 percent, and his walk rate increased only slightly, 3.5 percent to 5.1 percent. His home run rate did increase, perhaps in part because his fastball velocity dipped into the upper 80s and his cut fastball, once thrown at 86-87 mph, was down to 84-85 on average. What we don't know, of course, is how much of the velocity decline was caused by the injury issues and how much by just general wear and tear on a pitcher who has thrown a lot of innings. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe tweeted that the Red Sox were scared off by the medical reports on Haren's hip. Haren has always been vulnerable to the home run, so it's possible he's just become more vulnerable with age as his stuff drops a tick.
Still, there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract, and Haren won't be expected to front the already loaded Nationals rotation. He'll replace Edwin Jackson and slot in nicely as ... well, the No. 5 guy, really:
If anything, Haren is a nice contrast to the heat that Strasburg, Zimmerman and Detwiler bring, and altogether different from the fastball/curveball combo that Gonzalez throws. The Nationals have five good starters, all with different styles and approaches.
That said, Haren isn't necessarily a huge upgrade over Jackson, who posted a 4.03 ERA in 189 innings -- or 4.3 runs per nine innings. Say Haren is reasonably healthy and cuts that by three-quarters of a run per nine innings. Over the same number of innings, that's 75 runs allowed, 15 fewer than Jackson. So we're talking about one to two wins over Jackson, if Haren is healthy and produces near his 2011 level.
But the biggest upgrade the Nationals could expect from their rotation is simply getting more innings. While the Nationals led the NL in rotation ERA (3.40 to 3.41 for the Dodgers), they ranked just 10th in the NL in innings and no starter reached 200. Because the starters didn't go deep into games, Davey Johnson had to push his top relievers fairly hard -- Craig Stammen had the second-most relief innings in the majors and he and Tyler Clippard both looked out of gas by the playoffs, a key factor in the Game 5 collapse against the Cardinals. With Sean Burnett perhaps headed to Milwaukee and Tom Gorzellany non-tendered, the only lefty reliever right now is Zach Duke, signed the other day as a reliever/starter insurance.
Still, it's the best rotation in the league on paper right now and after winning 98 games in 2012, you can envision the Nationals reaching 100 if that group remains healthy.