Nationals Take a Smart Risk With Dan Haren
December 5, 2012 in Nationals Offseason
The Washington Nationals today signed SP Dan Haren to a 1-year $13 million contract to roundout their pitching rotation for next season. Though it wasn't the mega-deal either via trade or free agency that some were hoping for, Haren represents an upgrade to the Nationals rotation as well as a tremendous value.
Haren is coming off his worst season since becoming a full-time starter in 2005. Haren was limited to just 30 starts and 176.2 innings pitched. Going 12-13, with a 4.33 ERA. Prior to last season though, Haren had never pitched fewer than 216 innings or won fewer games than he lost. It's that prior consistency, that the Nationals are betting on him returning to with this contract.
From 2005=2011 Haren had a WAR (wins above replacement) In terms of value of at least 4.0, and three years was over 6.0 (according to Fangraphs). To put those numbers in perspective, in the last 8 seasons, typically between 4-6 pitchers have a WAR of 6.0 or higher (and it never was higher than 10), and between 24-27 pitchers have a WAR as high as 4.0. With the exception of Zack Greinke (5 times), no other top free agent starter (Hideki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Loshe, Ryan Dempster), had broken that 4.0 barrier more than once (most though had multiple seasons in the high 3.0's), and none had come close to 6.0.
Now is WAR the be all end all? Of course not, but it's a pretty good baseline stat (whether you use Baseball reference or Fangraphs). While there is always a lot of debate about the stat, it ends up being pretty accurate when you think of the players or pitchers who are Top 10, Top 25, Top 50, with maybe slight adjustments with the order. Which means that based on those WAR numbers, Haren has been a Top 25 pitcher for his first 7 years as a full time starter, and for three of those years he was Top 10. That is a very impressive resume, and could be a nice boost over Edwin Jackson who has typically been more of a Top 30-50 starter.
The big question of course is will Haren go back to that level of value, given both some concerns with his hip and back. It's tough to say until the season gets under way, but there is some reason for hope. In addition to the fact that he was so highly durable for nearly all of his career, Haren is just 32 (turns 33 in Sept.), meaning that he's still near his peak. Haren also pitched better after returning from the D.L. in late July. In his first 17 starts last season (prior to going on the D.L.), Haren allowed 3 or more earned runs in 11 starts, including 5 or more in six of those starts. After the D.L. stint, he allowed 3 or more earned runs in just four out of 13 starts, and only twice did he allow 5 earned runs or more. In fact Haren gave up just 29 earned runs in the those final 13 starts which breaks down for an average of 2.23 runs per game. That is below Haren's 2005-2011 average of 2.59 earned runs allowed per start. Now it is a small sample size and probably not sustainable, but does show that he can limit runs, like he had in the past.
With a fair expectation that he can return to form, the Nationals should get excellent value with this deal. Had Haren not fallen off last season, the Angels would have never let him hit free agency exercising their $15.5 million option on him. If he had just been on the market and healthy, he reasonably could have expected a 4-5 year deal at $20 million a season. So getting him at $13 million is a steal for just one season, even with the added risk. Yes if he pitches like last year or is significantly injured, the Nationals aren't getting their money's worth, but any pitcher regardless of their track record can get injured. If Haren is healthy though he's likely to outshine every free agent pitcher not named Zach Greinke, and for less money and less years.
In addition to the injury risk, the Nationals do have a slight long term concern with signing Haren for just one year. Washington doesn't have much in the way of starting pitching depth in the high minors, especially top end quality guys. That means the Nationals will have to either trade for or sign a starter next season as well, and it's possible (and somewhat likely) that the Nationals won't get as much value next season (even if they re-sign a healthy Haren next year, it will be for a significant amount). The Nationals are passing on the chance of adding Zack Greinke, who while more expensive, would have locked up a position and a top of the rotation for the Nationals of Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann for at least the next three years. Greinke is also a safer bet for this season, though Haren is very capable of matching him. Whether or not this was the better choice is really unknown until Greinke's price is known and Haren's health and production are determined. For 2013 this is a very good deal, but leaves open some future questions.