Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2012 [Print without images]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Haren a bounce-back candidate

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Move over, Philadelphia Phillies. You might no longer sport the National League East's -- let alone the majors' -- best rotation.

The defending division champion Washington Nationals, who owned the game's second-best team ERA (3.33) and WHIP (1.22) in 2012, deepened their young rotation on Tuesday with the signing of veteran right-hander Dan Haren. Like the man whose spot he'll take, Edwin Jackson, Haren signed a one-year deal (for a reported $13 million); Jackson signed a one-year, $11 million deal last winter.

Haren
Dan Haren finished 78th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater in 2012, one spot behind new division-mate Roy Halladay.

Haren's deal is pending a physical, and in this particular instance, that's important. After all, he made a trip to the disabled list in July and subsequently missed an additional start with a back problem, and in 2012 put forth his worst season in terms of ERA, WHIP and innings pitched in his eight as a big league starter. In addition, per Buster Olney, teams seeking Haren's free-agent services were actually more concerned with his bad hip than his bad back.

If Haren passes the test, he'll instantly become one of the more attractive bounce-back starting pitchers in fantasy. Since he became a full-timer in 2005, he has the fourth-most wins (113), second-most strikeouts (1,510), eighth-best WHIP (1.16) and second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.24) in the game. As recently as 2011, he ranked among the top 10 starting pitchers on our Player Rater (ninth, and 32nd overall), and in 2009, he was the No. 5 starter (No. 12 player overall).

Haren did, however, show some signs of decline in 2012, and the prospects of him finishing among the 10 best at his position in 2013 are slim. Both his strikeout and swing-and-miss rates are in a four-year pattern of decline; he whiffed 24.5 percent of his batters faced and generated misses on 24 percent of swings in 2009, but those numbers plummeted to 19.0 and 21 last season.

Most of Haren's rebound potential is founded upon the situational advantage of his having changed teams. For one, he's migrating from the more hitting-rich American League to the more pitching-minded National League, where the league ERA has ranged between one-tenth and three-tenths of a run lower than in the AL the past half-decade. He's also moving into a division that lacks much in the way of thumpers; every one of the Nationals' four division rivals finished among the bottom half in the majors in terms of runs scored.

Though Haren's signing with the Nationals moves him up only one place in my starting pitcher rankings, leapfrogging Lance Lynn for the No. 27 spot, keep in mind that he had previously earned a generous ranking based upon his consistent track record of strong numbers in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. That Haren's polished command rivals that of most any pitcher makes him a low-risk fantasy investment, especially if he passes his Nationals physical with flying colors.

As I often say, if you must buy one of the five primary rotisserie pitching categories, buy WHIP. In Haren's career, among ERA qualifiers, his annual WHIP has ranked 28th, 12th, 16th, seventh, first, 45th, fifth and 57th.

Don't underestimate the value of Haren's arrival in Washington upon the Nationals' other starters, too. Though the 2012 Nationals thrived from a pitching perspective, let's not overlook that they still ranked only 18th out of the 30 teams in terms of innings pitched by their starters, though they did have the fifth-most quality starts (97). Here are their returning starters' 2012 innings/quality starts totals:

Gio Gonzalez: 199 1/3 IP and 22 QS
Jordan Zimmermann: 195 2/3 IP and 24 QS
Stephen Strasburg: 159 1/3 IP and 20 QS
Ross Detwiler: 164 1/3 IP and 12 QS

The case could be made that this team might get 200 innings out of four of its starters: Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Haren -- especially if Strasburg continues to follow the "Zimmermann plan" and pitches 195 2/3 innings of his own in 2013. I've often argued that fantasy owners shouldn't chase wins, but the deeper these starters last in their games, the greater their chances of victory. The odds of all four exceeding their 2012 innings totals are good.

That's good news for the bullpen as well, whether it's Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen who lands the closer role. In fact, with a greater number of workhorse starters, one might wonder whether this is a signal that the team could decrease Clippard's workload -- he has made at least 72 appearances in each of his three seasons with the Nationals -- which might keep him more consistently effective.