It wasn’t supposed to happen like this for Dan Haren.
A three-time All-Star with impressive career credentials, Haren figured he would someday hit free agency and cash in with a long-term and lucrative deal.
But Haren, a ten-year big league veteran who has been traded three times, became a free agent for the first time in his career this past offseason coming off a down year and injury concerns to his hip and back.
“I didn’t necessarily hit free agency at the high point of my career,” Haren admits. “I had a lot of good years that if I would have hit the free agency at any of those times I would have been paid extremely well, not that I’m not paid well, but it just so happened that I got a little banged up last year. I’ll just have to prove myself again this year.”
Haren, 32, posted a 4.33 ERA in 176 2/3 innings with the Angels last season, the highest ERA he’s had in any of his eight full seasons. But must of his struggles were due to lower back tightness that he pitched through before eventually landing on the disabled list for the first time in his career in July.
With teams scared due to the back injury and a hip issue that hasn’t bothered him but always shows up during physicals, Haren was forced to take a short-term deal and try his luck again in free agency next year.
The right-hander signed a one-year, $13MM deal with the Nationals in early December, choosing a chance to compete for a World Series over more lucrative offers from other teams.
“I understood,” Haren said of the medical concerns. “I think baseball, their physicals are a lot more thorough these days. I think there were some red flags about my hip issues that I’ve had since my days in Oakland but I’ve never missed a day because of it. I had some back problems, which a lot of people obviously have back problems but structurally everything is fine in my back. Really it was my hip which was a little bit frustrating just being that I had never missed any time because of it.
“I was on the disabled list for a little less than three weeks for my back but I came back and I finished off the season pretty well. I saw the way the market was going and I just wanted to come to a team that was going to give me the best chance to win.”
Haren has proven to be one of the most durable pitchers in recent years, ending a streak of seven straight seasons of at least 200 innings pitched when the short stint on the DL left him at 176 2/3 innings last year. He’s also proven to be one of the best pitchers in recent years, posting a career 3.66 ERA in nearly 1,900 innings since breaking into the big leagues with the Cardinals in 2003.
But it’s been an interesting career path for a pitcher of his caliber. The former second round draft pick of the Cardinals was traded to the Oakland Athletics in a deal for Mark Mulder after making 28 appearances for the Cardinals in 2003 and 2004.
Haren pitched three seasons in Oakland before he was traded again, this time to the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 2008 season. He signed a four-year, $44.75MM extension midway through his first season with Arizona but was traded to the Angels at the 2010 trade deadline.
With an option remaining on his contract with the Angels for 2013, Haren wasn’t sure what would happen this offseason. The Angels could have picked up the option to bring him back or released him and allowed him to become a free agent.
Then came news that he had been traded a fourth time, this time to the Chicago Cubs for reliever Carlos Marmol. Or so he thought. The trade appeared to be all-but-done but fell through at the last minute.
“I thought it was happening,” said Haren, who was in communication throughout the day with Angels GM Jerry Dipoto. “We had been texting back and forth all day that day and he told me the deal is pretty much done but it’s not completed so you’re not traded yet, even though everyone was calling me and saying I had been traded and it was on the internet that I was traded.
“I was assuming that I was traded. My family was there and we were all prepared to be with Chicago. It kind of prepared me for free agency, the chance of being on the east coast or the Midwest.”
The Angels declined the $15.5MM option on Haren’s contract by the deadline after being unable to complete the deal or find another willing trade partner. Haren received a $3.5MM buyout and became a free agent.
He went nearly a month before signing, eventually deciding to join an already stacked Washington rotation for a one-year deal shortly before the Winter Meetings.
“Part of it is me proving myself and part of it is coming to a team with one of the best chances to win a World Series,” Haren said. “Obviously their offer financially was competitive with other offers I was getting. That’s always a factor. If anyone tells you that money isn’t a factor, that’s a lie, but their offer was competitive with other teams and then it just gave me the best chance to succeed both personally and team wise.
“As the offseason went along and I was a free agent and taking a short term deal was going to happen, when taking a short term deal, you want to come to a team that is set to win that year and I think the Nationals give me the best chance. To be surrounded by a good rotation, a great bullpen, this lineup and what they did last year, it was kind of a no brainer. It just made sense for me to come here.
“Probably if I waited a little while longer I probably could have gotten another year or two (from another team) but when the Nationals showed interest I was just kind of content coming here for a year and seeing what I could do and seeing how far this team can go.”
And if he proves to be healthy, Haren just might finally get the chance he's waited for next winter.