Prior to 2012, Dan Haren was as much of sure thing as you could find in a major-league starting rotation -- he provided No. 2 starter performance for 210+ innings each season. But over the past two seasons, he's been something a little less than league-average, and a little less durable as well.
Now, Haren has signed a one-year, $10 million contract -- one that vests for 2015 and another $10 million if he breaks 180 innings -- to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers are a team with five starters already -- Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all high-end hurlers, while Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley are due to return from injury.
Yet, Beckett and Billingsley already carry question marks, and the adage that you can never have enough starting pitching has proven true time and time again. The Dodgers themselves are no strangers to losing one, two, three starters and needing add depth and breadth.
In investing in Dan Haren, the Dodgers are making a play for a pitcher who has never thrown fewer than 169 innings in a full season in the bigs and 2,000 innings of big-league experience under his belt. Despite injury issues over the past couple of seasons, Haren has come through with close to 350 innings for Anaheim and Washington. The odds are that Haren can at least fill in for 160 innings in this return trip to Los Angeles in 2014
The real question is this: how good should we expect those innings to be?
For the easiest answer, you could reach out to one of the existing projection systems. The Steamer projections put Haren as likely to rack up a couple of wins in value thanks to 3.85 RA9 and 3.67 FIP over 173 innings of work. And while that innings number sounds about right, those rate stats would put Haren in place that's a bit better than he's performed over his past two seasons. Last year, Haren logged a 4.88 RA9 and 4.09 FIP -- even though his peripherals indicated performance only slightly worse than league-average, that RA9 meant that he gave up far more runs than the average hurler.
The real problem that Haren has faced in the past two seasons, and the reason why he's no longer an ace-level contributor, is a magnified version of a problem that's dogged his whole career: home runs. In 2013, Haren was almost as likely to give up a home run (1.49 HR/9) as he was to walk a batter (1.64 BB/9). So long as Dan gives up that number of home runs, no pinpoint control or solid K% numbers can save him from giving up runs in bunches.
There's a chance that Haren could benefit from spending time in Dodger Stadium, where right-handed hitters are less likely to send balls out of the park than they were in Washington -- but it's more likely that the move to L.A. will only benefit Haren by offering him different looks on the road. The pitcher-friendly parks in San Diego and San Francisco might help keep the ball in the park -- especially AT&T out in the Bay Area. But I wouldn't necessarily look to Dodger Stadium as a salve for his long-ball woes. The overall HR park factors numbers that FanGraphs uses look practically identical for Washington and Los Angeles, and L.A. is actually easier on left-handed hitters who want to hit balls out of the park.
Haren's always been a fly-ball pitcher, and perhaps it was just poor luck that saw so many of those flies leave the stadium when he was pitching. SIERA (3.60 in 2013) and xFIP (3.67 in 2013) both indicate a much more manageable set of runs scored given his peripherals last season. And Stephen Loftus' oaFIP gives Haren's FIP the biggest bump of anyone in his sample thanks to the quality of opposition faced last season -- his oaFIP is 3.85 compared to his 4.09 FIP. So there's room for something like regression in a positive direction for the Dodgers and their fans. It's my estimation that he's something close to a two-win pitcher in 2014, provided he stays healthy.
But expectations should be managed. During his age-32, his velocity was still a little down from where it was in 2011. Even if he regresses away from the huge HR/FB rates he's posted over the last two seasons, he's still not a likely bet to return to ace-level form. As the years have gone on, Haren has given up fewer and fewer grounders, and balls will continue to leave the park when he pitches. It just might not be at *quite* such an alarming rate.
Given Haren's skillset and peripherals, I see him as kind of a low-risk, low-ceiling play for the Dodgers. At best, we're probably looking at a pitcher that's capable of throwing 160-180 innings of above-average -- but not great -- work. As a downside, Haren could miss a lot of time (something that's hardly ever happened) or he'll give up a host of home runs, even based out of Chavez Ravine.
I see Haren as a smarter, cheaper bet than putting a lot of faith in someone like Jason Vargas -- whose reputation for durability doesn't compare to Haren' -- or Tim Lincecum, who could be as bad or worse than Haren only both of those options required a larger outlay in cash.
Ten million dollars for a year of one league-average starting pitcher isn't crazy -- and it hardly matters what position your team is in. Of course, the Dodgers are definitely in the position to spend their nigh-limitless resources on a salve for the back-end of their rotation. While we shouldn't expect Dan Haren to put up a new version of his stellar 2011, limiting his home runs might make him worth even more than $10 million -- especially for a team targeting the World Series.
This deal isn't likely to be a bargain, but it's also not likely that it will be a waste. And in a critical year they're expected to contend for real hardware, it's a solid deal to make.
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Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.