Last week, the Angels shopped Dan Haren around the league, as it was common knowledge that they weren’t going to pick up his $15.5 million option for 2013, and were willing to trade him to a team that wanted to take a one year flier on a pitcher was among the game’s best as recently as 2011. Because they owed him a $3.5 million buyout, the marginal cost of acquiring Haren was really $12 million, the same amount that the Royals agreed to take on in acquiring Ervin Santana in the same style of trade.
While Santana found a new home, Haren did not, and after a deal with the Cubs fell through — after the Cubs supposedly pulled out of the trade — the Angels allowed Haren to become a free agent. So, now, he’s at the top of everyone’s free agent bargain list. And, given his skills and track record, the idea that a team could sign him for less than 1/12 seems to be a potentially huge bargain. But, given what transpired last week, we have to at least consider that perhaps Haren is more broken than is obvious from the outside.
This gets to an issue that Matt Swartz has been talking about for a few years, and wrote up extensively in The 2012 Hardball Times Annual. In doing work on free agent pricing and valuation, he found that free agents who change teams perform significantly worse than free agents who re-sign with their original franchise, and the large gap comes mostly from the disappointing performance of free agent pitchers. As he noted in this thread at The Book Blog, a team pays “about twice as much per WAR for another team’s pitcher as (they) do re-signing (their) own pitcher.”
The simplest explanation for this effect is information asymmetry, especially as it concerns a pitcher’s health. While everyone knows when a pitcher lands on the DL or has surgery, a team is in a unique position to know whether he had to skip throwing sessions between starts because of soreness, or if the team made some adjustments to his delivery to try and compensate for the fact that he was dealing with some lingering pain. Or whether the publicly disclosed injury was even the actual ailment to begin with. Those things might not show up on an MRI or a pre-contract physical, but they could very well be predictive of future injury issues, or a sign of trouble that could lead to a faster decline in velocity or movement.
For instance, we know that Dan Haren was placed on the DL with “lower back stiffness” in July, but only the Angels know what Haren was actually telling them at that point. It wouldn’t be the first time a team said that a pitcher’s back hurt when it was actually his elbow that was barking, and the motivation to keep any report of arm problems out of the media in your free agent walk year is pretty high. Of course, there’s no evidence that Haren’s arm hurt, and we shouldn’t just assume that the Angels were lying to everyone, but they’re the only team in a position to really know what was going on with him physically last summer.
And they made it very clear that they have no real interest in bringing him back for 2013. To quote the musical geniuses from the C+C Music Factory, this is a thing that makes you go hmmm. But, of course, one team’s evaluation of a player isn’t proof that the player is useless, as there are countless examples of teams misevaluating their own players before shipping them off to prosper elsewhere. However, the fact that every team in baseball essentially had the chance to acquire Haren at 1/12 and failed to do is enough reason to give some merit to the idea that Haren simply isn’t healthy.
For instance, the proposed Carlos Marmol-Dan Haren swap for the Cubs seemed too good to be true. Marmol’s control problems make him a mediocre reliever, but Chicago is on the hook for the remaining $9.8 million left on his contract before he becomes a free agent after the 2013 season. There might not be anything the rebuilding Cubs need less than a $10 million relief pitcher who can’t throw strikes, so swapping him for Haren would be nothing but upside, especially if they were able to get the Angels to pay part of his salary in order to buy down the total cost of Haren’s acquisition. And yet, according to the reports from Friday night, the Cubs are the one who decided not to go through with the deal.
So, now, we have the Major League team that knows Haren’s medicals better than anyone making it obvious that they don’t want to pay him an additional $12 million to pitch for them in 2013. We have another Major League team apparently backing out of a deal at the last minute that looks heavily lopsided in their favor, and we have 28 other Major League teams not stepping in to pick up the pieces after the deal with the Cubs fell apart.
Maybe the Angels are missing the boat on Haren’s health issues, and maybe the Cubs walked away over issues with the finances of the deal and not anything related to the medical records they’d definitely have received access to in order to complete the trade. And maybe the other 28 teams were just calling the Angels bluff, knowing Jerry Dipoto wouldn’t pick up the option and they could sign Haren without giving Anaheim anything in the process. That scenario is certainly a possibility.
But given what we know about “other people’s players”, and how willing the Angels were to pay Haren to go away, perhaps it’s worth considering that they actually do know something fairly predictive, and other teams should proceed with caution before throwing huge amounts of money at Dan Haren.
Last year, for instance, Ryan Madson seemed to be the bargain of the winter after falling through the cracks and landing a one year deal to close for the Reds, getting just a fraction of the contract that other closers landed over the winter. The Phillies looked particularly foolish for giving Jonathan Papelbon $50 million to replace Madson, who ended up with a 2013 salary of just $8 million. Madson, however, never threw a pitch for the Reds in the regular season, as his elbow required season ending Tommy John surgery before spring training even ended.
Like with Haren, there were some weird circumstances there. Scott Boras claimed that the Phillies had agreed to sign him to a four year, $44 million contract, only to change their minds and sign Papelbon instead. And then, every other team who needed a closer ended up with someone besides Madson, even as his price dropped considerably as the winter went on. Of course, we don’t know that the Phillies suspected Madson’s arm was damaged, but there do appear to be some similarities between the two situations, and perhaps the information the Phillies possessed led them to believe that Madson’s eventual outcome was at least a decent possibility.
Here’s what we do know. The Angels back end of their rotation isn’t very good. They spent a week trying to trade Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, both of whom had a marginal cost of $12 million for 2013 assuming the Angels were willing to cover the buyout they’d have to pay regardless. They found a team that would take Santana. They did not find a team that would take Haren. Despite a large amount of reported trade interest in Haren, the Angels weren’t willing to exercise his option and continue shopping him around the league while they figured out if they could re-sign Zack Greinke or not. Dan Haren’s strikeout rate has been trending downwards for four years. He’s thrown 29,000 pitches in the last 10 years.
Maybe it’s a false association, but I can’t shake the feeling that the present version of Dan Haren reminds me a lot of the post-2009 version of John Lackey. Both were strike-throwers with good enough stuff to miss bats, but racked up a large part of their value through durability and walk avoidance. Both peaked as +6 win pitchers in seasons where they didn’t give up many home runs, but bottomed around around +2 wins when they did. Both hit free agency in their early-30s. The Angels seemed disinclined to bring back either one.
Haren’s not getting Lackey’s contract, and Lackey was okay for the Red Sox during his first year with Boston, but he’s still an example of how quickly this kind of pitcher can go south, especially if there’s an underlying injury issue. We don’t know that there is, but it seems more likely now than it did a week ago. Or, at least, that’s one possible way of reading how this whole situation played out.
On a one year deal, Haren still looks like a pretty good value buy. Even while dealing with his first DL trip of his career last year, he threw 177 innings and posted an xFIP- of 97, so there are plenty of reasons to think he’s still a capable big league pitcher. But, given what we know about pitchers who change addresses in free agency, given that a pitching-poor contender just decided they didn’t want him back, and given that a front office that loves to buy low just passed on acquiring him for an overpaid relief pitcher, the evidence is starting to pile up that perhaps there’s more wrong with Dan Haren than we know.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands somewhere like San Diego and has a career rejuvenation, but after what happened last week, I’m also not going to be surprised if he ends up having surgery at some point in the near future. What from the outside might just look like a minor back issue could conceivably be something far more serious, and that seems like a more fitting explanation for why no one wanted Haren at 1/12 than that the rest of the league just forgot that he’s been a pretty good starting pitcher for the past decade.