The Nationals announced the signing of right-hander Dan Haren on Friday, making his acquisition official after he passed a physical. Haren, 32, will earn $13 million in 2013 as he completes the Nationals formidable rotation and provides a powerful symbol for how much the Nationals’ stature within the sport has changed.
The Nationals once had to beg for a meeting with free agents; after the 2008 season, Mark Teixeira never seriously considered the Nationals’ $180 million offer. Now, players want to play for them as much as they want to sign them.
“To get a pitcher of Dan Haren’s caliber, we feel fortunate that we could land him,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It says a lot about where we’ve come as a franchise. Dan had his choice of a lot of organizations to be with.”
Haren, one of the most accomplished right-handed starters in baseball the past decade, received ample interest. He said “a lot” of teams vied for his services, but once the Nationals emerged as a suitor, his mind was made. The Nationals met with Haren’s representatives Monday night at the winter meetings, and by Tuesday morning, the news of his one-year, $13 million deal broke.
“If the Nationals were competitive with what other teams were offering, the Nationals were the best fit for me,” Haren said. “When the Nationals showed interest, I was really zeroed in on them.”
Once the winter began, Rizzo identified Haren as his No. 1 target in free agency. The Nationals rated Zack Greinke as the top pitcher, conforming to the clear consensus. But Rizzo believed Haren’s value as he came off a relative down season, and the ability to sign him to a one-year contract, made Haren the best choice. Once the Nationals arrived in Nashville, Rizzo said, they worked “quickly and aggressively” to acquire Haren.
“He’s one of the most accomplished pitchers in the past couple years,” Rizzo said. “His credentials are impeccable. We feel really good that he’s with the Washington Nationals. Once we expressed interest in him, he certainly focused in on us.
“He chose us, so we kind of took everything else off the back burner.”
The Nationals could swoop in with only a one-year deal because of the health concerns surrounding Haren. Haren’s physical was seen as at least slightly more important than a routine examination. He pitched through a back injury and a lingering hip issue last season, and other teams had quietly expressed alarm.
But Haren, one of the league’s most consistent right-handers, said in an e-mail on Tuesday that he had already passed another team’s physical and expressed full confidence in his health. In a conference call with reporters today, he reiterated his stance.
“In regards to my health, I know it was a question for a lot of people,” Haren said. “If it makes you feel any better, there were lots of teams that were interested in my services. I think I have a lot to prove this year. … I’m 100 percent confident I’ll be healthy this year.”
Last year, Haren went on the disabled list at the all-star break to rest back tightness, which caused him to miss a start for the time in his career. He insisted he did not even need to go on the disabled list, but Angels officials and medical personnel convinced him otherwise. “It was a group decision,” Haren said.
In a show of his competitive nature, Haren pleaded to come back on the very first day he was eligible to return; the Angels made him pitch in a minor league rehab game and wait three extra days. When he returned he was out of whack mechanically. He had altered his delivery to handle the back tightness, and it took him until August to get himself straight. Once he did, Haren finished the season strong, throwing eight quality starts in his final 13 outings.
Haren also pitched through pain in his hip, which he said he has done since his rookie season in Oakland. He has learned to manage the issue, he said, and has taken measures this offseason to make it less of an issue: losing weight, improving flexibility, working out his core more.
“It’s never caused me to miss any time, and I’m sure it won’t cause me to miss any time this year,” Haren said.
Still, the hip led some – not all – teams that were interested in Haren to waver. “It was frustrating for me, just because it’s tough for someone to deal with so many injury questions on something I’ve never missed a day for – not even getting pushed back a day,” Haren said.
The Nationals, Rizzo said, never worried much about Haren’s hip. They had questions about his back, but the physical Haren underwent assuaged their concerns.
“The back issue was something that was a concern to us,” Rizzo said. “Once we took a look at the MRIs and the films and our doctor put his hands on him and saw the condition of his back and hip, he signed off on him.”
And so, the Nationals had their fifth starter. Haren chose Washington because he believes it’s the team best positioned to win the World Series. He went to college at Pepperdine and has spent his entire career on the West Coast. Early in this offseason, though, Haren heard trade rumors that connected to him and he and his wife warmed to the idea of moving to the East Coast.
Haren visited Washington on Wednesday for his physical. Rizzo gave him a tour of Nationals Park and the facilities. At night, Haren toured the city, and he loved it. When he called home, he told his wife they’ll enjoy the summer. “It’ll be fun being there for the majority of the year,” Haren said.
During his tour of the stadium, Haren met a couple new teammates who were using the weight room in the clubhouse to work out. He does not know many Nationals, and he understood it’ll take time to fit into his new clubhouse.
“I’m sure I’m not going to really be myself when I get to spring training,” Haren said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time. I’m sure we’ll gel together quickly. I think it’s important for those five guys to be close, to be each other’s No. 1 fans.”
Haren already has one connection to the Nationals’ ace. Stephen Strasburg’s pitching coach at San Diego State, Haren said, was the best man at Haren’s wedding. Soon enough they’ll be sharing a rotation. The Nationals got the man they wanted and, in their new reality, that man wanted them, too.