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The Angels, Dan Haren, and Playing It Safe

It’s decision time for the Los Angeles Angels. It’s decision time for everybody, but the Angels are a part of everybody, and like everybody else, they’re trying to figure out what their 2013 big-league roster might look like. They just traded Ervin Santana to the Royals. They were going to decline his option, and this way they effectively declined his option and also added a potential reliever. Now the Angels have to figure out what they’re doing with Dan Haren and Torii Hunter. A Haren decision in particular will have to be made quickly.

The Angels have until tomorrow to decide whether to pick up Haren’s $15.5 million 2013 option, or whether to buy it out for $3.5 million. Thus the Angels have until tomorrow to decide whether Dan Haren is worth $12 million over one year. From many reports, the Angels are currently trying to trade Haren, just as they did with Santana. Doing so would free up money for Zack Greinke, who is supposedly the Angels’ top offseason priority.

Let’s operate here under two assumptions:

  1. the Angels greatly prefer Greinke over Haren
  2. the Angels do not wish to pay both Greinke and Haren

Those assumptions seem pretty safe to me. The Angels have been free with their money in the past, but every team has a budget, and the Angels apparently aren’t real interested in paying eight figures for a would-be fourth starter. Now let’s take a glance at how the Angels’ present starting rotation looks, leaving Greinke and Haren out:

There are candidates for that fifth spot — it’s not like the Angels as an organization have but four starting pitchers — but this organization isn’t deep. It’s deep in some places, and it’s deep in the wallet, but it isn’t deep in starters. If we were to represent organizational depth with a ball pit, the Angels’ starting pitcher ball pit would be sparsely populated by balls.

The Angels, of course, will address their rotation, because the offseason is just starting, not just finishing. The Angels fancy themselves a contender and a contender needs to have starters. The Angels seem like they’re going to go all out for Greinke, because they know him and they like him. Maybe the Angels ought to even be considered the Zack Greinke favorites. But one cannot just assume that Greinke will re-sign, and that makes me wonder about the Angels’ approach with Haren.

There’s apparently a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing Haren away, although reports could be incorrect. If the Angels were to deal Haren in the coming days, they’d get a player return, but they’d mostly be saving money. They probably wouldn’t get a very good big-league starting pitcher. Their rotation would be thin, and in need of a significant upgrade if the Angels want to go to the 2013 playoffs.

It seems to me there’s a safer route. I’ll quote Nick Cafardo:

Angels righthander Dan Haren is drawing interest from “several teams,” including the Red Sox, according to a major league source.

Right now, there is reportedly trade interest in Dan Haren. Dan Haren isn’t going to get more or less expensive. If teams are interested in trading for Haren today, it stands to reason teams would be interested in trading for Haren later in the offseason. Maybe not as many teams, but some teams, perhaps even more desperately. One figures the Dan Haren trade interest wouldn’t just evaporate.

Reports have suggested the Angels want to clear Haren before dealing with Greinke, but perhaps they should keep Haren until or unless they get Greinke locked up. If the Angels had their way, they’d have Greinke re-signed by now, but he’s probably going to take a while to sort out his options. There will be plenty of teams interested in his services, and they’ll all be offering big money. Greinke might not sign before the winter meetings. A lot could happen between now and then.

If the Angels were to eventually re-sign Greinke, odds are there would still be teams interested in trading for Haren. Starting pitching is always in demand, Haren would be a short-term commitment, and he has very recently pitched like he belongs at the front of a rotation. If Greinke were to end up somewhere else, though, the Angels would have Haren as a fallback. They’d have Haren for, essentially, a year and $12 million.

The problem with Haren is, naturally, his most recent season. For the first time since 2004, he posted an ERA worse than the league average. For the first time since 2003, he posted an FIP worse than the league average. His xFIP was very slightly better than the league average. Haren’s velocity dropped, and he landed on the disabled list with a back injury he’d tried pitching through. Between June 9 and July 3, Haren allowed 27 runs in 27 innings.

But when Haren came back, the Angels suggested the physical issues were mostly gone, and that what remained was mechanical. It makes sense that a guy pitching hurt would alter his mechanics, and it became a matter of getting Haren back on track. For whatever it’s worth, over Haren’s final nine starts, he registered 43 strikeouts and five unintentional walks. Three of those starts, granted, were against Seattle.

In 2011, Dan Haren was worth 6.1 WAR. Those days are probably gone — Haren’s only getting older — but those days are also recent days. Prior to 2012, Dan Haren was legitimately fantastic. In 2012, Dan Haren was more roughly league-average. He seems to be something of a bounce-back candidate, and at $12 million, he wouldn’t have to be worth a ton to be worth the contract. And on a one-year deal, the risk would be fairly low.

There’s always the option that the Angels could decline Haren’s option and then try to re-sign him at a lower price. Doing so, though, would expose Haren to the market, where he could sign anywhere. The Angels would have competition, and it might require a multi-year commitment to get Haren back. It’s a gamble. Losing Haren and hoping for Greinke is a gamble, because no matter what the Angels’ odds might be for re-signing Greinke, they aren’t 100 percent.

Picking up Haren’s option and holding onto him for the time being wouldn’t lock the Angels into having Haren for 2013. It would just give them support as they work on signing their top priority. There are other starting pitchers out there, of course, but none are as good as Greinke, and few offer Haren’s blend of risk/reward. The Angels know they can have Haren for one year, they know his 2012 was affected by an injury, and they know in 2011 he pitched like an ace. Other pitchers would cost unknown amounts of resources, in terms of players, money, or years. If the Angels ditched Haren and missed out on Greinke, they’d survive, but would their rotation be as good as it would be had they not ditched Haren instead?

Ultimately, the Angels are the most informed, here. Analysis has shown that re-signed players outperform regular-signed players in terms of $/WAR, presumably because the original organizations have the most information. The Angels know the most about Haren’s repertoire, and they know the most about Haren’s back. Maybe the Angels simply see too many red flags — that’s something to consider, if the Angels hurry to trade Haren away.

But at least statistically, there’s an argument for keeping Haren around, if only until Greinke makes a choice. If Haren can be traded now, he could probably be traded after Thanksgiving. And if you just end up stuck with Dan Haren, well, there are worse starting pitchers to end up stuck with on a one-year commitment.