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Aaron Harang: New Place, Same Face

The Dodgers kicked off their activities at the Winter Meetings by scooping up another veteran pitcher for their rotation. This time, it was another former NL Central tosser, as Los Angeles signed Aaron Harang to a two-year contract on Monday. The terms for the 33-year-old right-hander have not been released yet, but it is thought that the deal will be backloaded — similar to Chris Capuano‘s contract, which was signed last week.

Aaron Harang was once an ace pitcher for the Reds — a particularly impressive feat given the constricting outfield of Great American Ballpark — but he has been in a steep decline since the 2008 season. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 2008 season featured a stretch of 239 pitches in eight days for Harang, largely thanks to Dusty Baker calling on him for an extended long relief appearance in an extra inning game. From 2008 to 2010, Harang never posted an ERA below 4.20 after three straight years under 3.90; Harang does indeed blame the appearance for his physical struggles over those three seasons.

Harang must have been particularly excited to leave Cincinnati, and in San Diego he found a new manager, a new park, a new division of opponents and a shiny new 3.64 ERA in 170.2 innings pitched. Harang shaved 1.7 runs off his ERA from his final season in Cincinnati, but did anything actually change? San Diego is well known as a place where well-hit balls go to die, a veritable oasis for pitchers of any quality in which the ERA creates the perfect mirage.

A few things changed:

Others, not so much:

Between the league-wide decline in offense, the shift from Cincinnati to the cavernous outfield of Petco Park, and the lower quality of hitters in the NL West compared to the NL Central, most of the difference in Harang’s 2010 and 2011 home run rate and BABIP can be attributed to environment, not a direct change in skill. Throw in the Padres’ top-five rank in defensive efficiency (both raw and park adjusted) and it’s difficult to ascribe Harang’s 2011 performance to much else than his friendlier confines. A 105 ERA- — a below average mark — with a 3.64 ERA speaks volumes to this fact.

Harang’s virtually unchanged strikeout and walk numbers only reinforce this idea that the Dodgers will be getting the same pitcher who flamed out in Cincinnati. This doesn’t necessarily mean Harang is a guaranteed bust in Los Angeles by any means, though. Chavez Ravine carries many of the same advantages of playing in San Diego, although not quite to such extremes. The Dodgers only really want Harang to be their fourth or fifth starter, and that’s the kind of pitcher they look to get in Harang. The terms of the deal are yet unknown — all we know is that the total dollar amount is sure to exceed $5 million (the price of his declined player option with San Diego). At a rate similar to Chris Capuano’s contract — $5 million average annual value — Harang is a fine if uninspiring addition on a thin free agent market. If the numbers reach into $15 million or $20 million over the contract’s lifetime, however, the Dodgers will be left with little more than a mirage on their payroll for the next two seasons.