NASHVILLE — Dan Haren, one of baseball’s best right-handed starting pitchers for a half-decade, needed to choose this winter where to continue his career. He used a rationale that, while sound, for generations would have constituted pure fantasy. Haren came to pitch in the nation’s capital, home to so many woebegone seasons, to join a first-place powerhouse, to spray champagne and to hoist a trophy. He picked the Washington Nationals, the franchise two seasons removed from 298 losses in three years, because he saw in them the makings of a champion.
“The deciding factor in coming to Washington was winning,” Haren said in an e-mail. “I don’t think there’s a team better positioned to win now. It really was an easy decision for me, actually. It didn’t take me long to decide that playing for the Nationals made sense.”
The Nationals and Haren agreed Tuesday on a one-year, $13 million deal, according to a person with knowledge of the agreement. Once the contract is finalized, Haren will join four 20-somethings with lightning in their arms, completing the rotation that helps make the Nationals a World Series favorite.
With Haren in the fold and Denard Span in center field, the Nationals have nearly completed their offseason checklist. They still want to re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche, and they still need to add a left-hander in the bullpen. But building off a 98-win season, the Nationals have put a roster in place that should allow them to contend for Washington’s first title since 1924.
“World Series or bust,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That’s probably the slogan this year. But I’m comfortable with that.”
It is why Haren chose the Nationals. Haren, 32, still needs to pass a physical, which will take place Thursday in Washington, for the deal to become official. Haren pitched through a back injury and a lingering hip issue that alarmed some teams. But Haren said he has already taken a physical for another interested team, and he checked out fine.
“The team was much less concerned about me physically after looking at me,” Haren said.
Haren expressed complete confidence in his health and clarified the issues he faced. Haren tweaked his back in spring training last year, which, after he pitched through it for the first half of the season, led to him landing on the disabled list for the first time in his career. His back feels better now, and Haren said he has managed the hip issue since his early seasons.
“As for my health I feel great,” Haren said. “I actually felt great toward the end of last year, and I was battling my mechanics a lot but was still getting good results. I guess teams were concerned of a hip issue that I’ve dealt with since my time in Oakland. It never has and never will cause me to miss time.”
Haren, a three-time all-star, gives the Nationals a veteran workhorse to place into a rotation that includes an unrestricted Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. His style, cutters and splitters and precise control, differs from his hard-throwing company, and his experience will give the starting five a new dimension.
“This will probably be the best rotation I’ve ever been a part of,” Haren said. “I’m confident I’ll hold up my end and I think that the sky is the limit for this team.”
Haren went 12-13 with a 4.33 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels last year as he pitched through the back problems. The injury concerns convinced the Angels to not exercise a one-year, $15.5 million team option for 2012, instead giving him a $3.5 million buyout.
But Haren had long been one of the best, most durable starters in baseball. From 2005 to 2011, as he bounced from the Athletics to the Diamondbacks to the Angels, he averaged 226 innings with a 3.49 ERA. Unlike the rest of the Nationals rotation, Haren relies more on cutters, change-ups and control. In his career, Haren has walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings, while striking out 7.6.
“Great athlete. Outstanding stuff. Gamer,” Johnson said. “He fits right in. . . . I’ve got some young guys that act like veterans, and they pitched like veterans last year for me. And a veteran like Dan Haren is just going to make things even better.”
Haren lost velocity on his fastball last season, averaging 88.5 miles per hour compared to a career average of just over 90. Some scouts believe the drop began before his injuries struck, which would add to the injury risk. But Haren also provides a significant upside for a relatively small guaranteed sum.
The Nationals had interest in going after both Zack Greinke and James Shields, but they found the cost — money in Greinke’s case and players in Shields’s — to be extraordinary. With long-term commitments to Bryce Harper, Strasburg and other young stars needed in coming years, the Nationals saved money and kept their young core intact.
And they still signed a pitcher who, when healthy, is comparable to fellow right-handers Greinke and Shields. From 2008 through 2011, Haren ranked seventh in the majors in wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com, with 23.0 — essentially even with Greinke’s 23.4 and well ahead of Shields’s 14.6. The Nationals were able to land Haren with a one-year deal that, even if Haren flops, will do them no long-term harm.
“This is what we strive for,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “This is why we constructed the roster as we did. It’s always advantageous to have good, young controllable players. It was part of our strategy.”
The agreement works well financially for Haren, too. Between the buyout and the deal with the Nationals, Haren will make $16.5 million — $1 million more than he would have if the Angels picked up his option.
All that’s left for the Nationals are a few roster tweaks and small additions before spring training. Haren will gather then with his new team, now a destination for players who want to win.
“It’s gonna be fun to get going,” Haren said. “And I can’t wait to get to Florida.”