In December, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded starting pitcher Dan Haren to the Miami Marlins. This was a problem for Haren, because he's at a point in his career where retirement is an option and he's only interested in pitching close to his family in Southern California. It's not clear if the location has to be specifically in Southern California or just on the West Coast in general, but Haren's demand immediately makes me wonder if the Oakland Athletics should make a move to re-acquire their former All-Star. There has been no indication that there is any interest on either side, but there also hasn't been any word to the contrary, so this seems like the perfect time for Athletics Nation to kick the tires and see if there could be a match.
How much will he cost?
Let's get the logistics out of the way first. Haren is owed $10 million in the final year of his contract. The Dodgers sent the same amount of money to Miami in their trade, and the Marlins get to keep it even if Haren opts out of his final year in favor of retirement. However, don't expect the team to simply flip the money along with Haren just to find a taker, says Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:
The Marlins have no intention of parting with the $10 million that the Dodgers are giving them to pay Haren's salary or to keep if he retires. If Haren retires, the Marlins will allocate that money toward Mat Latos' estimated $8.4 million salary.
So, acquiring Haren probably means paying him his full salary. This is the Marlins we're talking about, after all, one of the only teams in sports who is cheaper than the A's. I can't imagine that Oakland would have to part with much to get him, since it makes absolutely no difference to Miami whether Haren pitches in the AL West or retires -- either way he's not playing for (or against) them, and they get their $10 million from the Dodgers no matter what.
As for a fit on the roster, the A's rotation is full but flexible. There are two locks at the top (Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir), and two guys who excelled as starters last year and will surely get first crack in 2015 (Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Chavez). Then there are four youngsters who will jockey for the last spot (Hahn, Bassitt, Graveman, Nolin), and a couple other wild cards for midseason depth (Griffin, Mills, maybe Parker).
The addition of Haren would likely mean that all four of the youngsters would open in Triple-A (or the bullpen), which would give the Nashville Sounds a stacked rotation. Or, it could mean that Chavez opens in the bullpen as the long man. You could view that as a positive due to the unbelievable depth, or you could view it as a negative, as a waste of a bunch of MLB-ready talent for which the team just paid a premium price. However, it's worth noting that Graveman has only made six career starts above Double-A, Bassitt skipped Triple-A entirely to pitch six games for the White Sox last year (and has only 14 starts at Double-A), and Nolin has only 20 Triple-A starts; it wouldn't be the end of the world if each of those guys got some more reps in the minors. Hahn seems like the only one who needs to start 2015 in Oakland, since he's ready to go and every pitch that his fragile arm throws in the minors is one that isn't helping the A's at the MLB level. Perhaps it would help to have one more veteran starter around to eat some innings.
But is Haren good enough to be that guy? Before we investigate that, let's give him a quick physical to see if it's even worth our time.
It's time for word association. What descriptions come to mind when you think of Dan Haren? Hair, obviously, but what else? There's a good chance that two of them are "old" and "injured," because that's sure the perception that I have of him at this point. It's not an entirely accurate description, though.
When I looked Haren up the other day, I was surprised to learn that he's only 34 years old, and will remain that age for most of next season. It just seems like he's been around forever, but he was only 26 in his final year in Oakland. He's certainly not young, but he's not so old that there can't be a couple more solid seasons left in him. After seeing Bartolo Colon dominate as a 40-year-old, I'll never be able to easily dismiss a 30-something pitcher on a one-year commitment.
I was also surprised when I realized that Haren has made at least 30 starts in every single season of his career dating back to 2005, his first year in Oakland. Through all the reports of his back giving him problems, and all of the bouncing around he's done lately on short-term show-me deals, he's never actually failed to get on the mound and take his turn. He hasn't reached 190 innings since 2011, but at least he's been healthy enough to play. He's only hit the DL twice in his career, once in 2012 (lower back) and once in 2013 (shoulder), and both times he returned after missing only the minimum stint.
Of course, seven straight years averaging 226 innings apiece, plus the aforementioned back issues, have taken their toll on Haren's physical abilities. His sinker used to average 92 mph, but now it's down to 88. His cutter and his curve have also lost several miles each since his prime, and his splitter has dropped three miles just since 2011 -- in particular, his splitter appears to be a pitch that used to be a consistent strength but has abandoned him the last couple years. He's clearly not the same pitcher he was in his prime, and he never will be again. However, that doesn't mean he can't do what many aged hurlers have done before him and find a second life as a command-and-finesse guy, much like Colon did in Oakland. In fact, he's well-suited for such a career path since he's always had a low walk rate.
Is he good enough to help the A's in 2015?
Well, that depends on who you ask. There's more than one way to analyze a pitcher, such as results-based stats (like ERA and bWAR) or fielding-independent metrics (like FIP and K/BB and fWAR). Sometimes there isn't a big difference between the two approaches, but Haren's success varies widely based on which method you prefer.
If you look at Haren's results, he's been poor for the last three seasons. He's got a 4.33 ERA overall, mostly in the NL, with ERA+ marks of 88, 81, and 87 -- comfortably below-average each year. He's posted a negative bWAR value in each of those campaigns as well. Baseball-Reference generally thinks he's over the hill and has little to offer.
If you look at Haren's process, though, you get an entirely different story. He's walked fewer than two batters per nine innings in each of those last three seasons, with a total strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.17 -- only Lester and Shark beat that ratio in Oakland last year. His percentage of runners left on base, always average or better during his career, has been below-average since 2012, which may or may not be his fault and could be due for an upswing. He's giving up a lot of home runs lately, but he always did that and it hasn't been significantly worse than his career norms. His FIP has been 4.14 since 2012 (compared to his 4.33 ERA), but the real eye-opener is his fWAR over the last three years: 1.7, 1.5, and 1.0. Whereas B-Ref told the tale of a sub-replacement geezer, Fangraphs sees a solid No. 4 starter who's never had a bad year.
Also, given that homers are his biggest weakness, a move back to the dinger-suppressing Coliseum could help stave off Father Time or even boost Haren back up to a two-win level. (However, note that Angel Stadium and Nationals Park are also both tough on long balls, so it might be optimistic to assume a move to the Coliseum is anything more than treading water venue-wise.)
Steamer projects the following 2015 stat-line for Haren:
Haren, 2015 projection: 28 starts, 3.93 ERA, 163 innings (just under 6 per start), 123 Ks (6.8 K/9), 35 walks (1.9 BB/9), 3.5 K/BB, 20 HR, 1.6 fWAR
In other words, a few weeks on the DL and a bit of regression on the FIP stats (K, BB, HR), but also a bit of better luck with his ERA. It's not a great line, to be sure, and it looks like a No. 5 starter. But here's the thing: after Sonny and Kaz, which of our starters are you sure will beat those numbers? Chavez could, unless he was a fluke. Pomeranz could, unless he takes a step back. One of the new guys could, or they could have rookie growing pains and 4.50 ERAs. For what it's worth, Steamer thinks Haren would be the No. 3 starter in Oakland's rotation, after Sonny and Kaz.
Going after Haren would be a risky move. The price to acquire him would likely be minuscule, but his salary wouldn't be. He could easily turn into the next Ben Sheets or Jim Johnson, the $10 million sinkhole who explodes and provides no value to the team. Or he could become a valuable stopgap, eating innings of decent quality and letting the new guns ease slowly into the picture while delaying their arbitration clocks. Granted, that means that the upside for the A's is that they might get fair market value on Haren's salary, with little chance of surplus value, but they get nothing if they don't spend the money they have.
If Billy Beane strikes out on acquiring an expensive new second baseman, there's supposedly $20 million lying around waiting to be spent. That rationale hasn't always worked out for the A's, as it was the explanation behind getting Johnson last year, but that doesn't mean it's not worth another try at squeezing wins out of surplus payroll. The bullpen is already full, and spending lavishly on it has been reaffirmed as a dumb idea after the JJ & Gregerson calamity in 2014. The remaining free agent market for non-Scherzer starters is a mess of broken ligaments and bloated ERAs and glory days gone by, and any worthwhile ones will likely require multi-year commitments, so a trade might be the best bet for veteran depth. And the addition of Haren's salary wouldn't necessarily price the A's out of an extra outfield bat, up to and including guys like Jay Bruce or Colby Rasmus.
I think it's unlikely that Haren will end up in Oakland, but it seems like it could be a risk worth taking. He'd be easy to acquire, the money for his salary is already burning a hole in Billy's pocket, and he could still have another solid year left in the tank. I wouldn't consider it a missed opportunity if the A's passed him up, but I wouldn't complain about spending some of Lew's money to see if Haren can succeed where Sheets and Johnson failed. After all, third time's a charm.