Dan Haren and John Lannan Debated: Did Mike Rizzo Make a Mistake?

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Editor’s Note: the following is an email exchange between April 18-22 between Dan Haren’s 3rd and 4th starts with the Nationals.

Justin:  Jason, Mike Rizzo opted to dump John Lannan in the offseason to make room for Dan Haren in the rotation.  John Lannan started 33 games in 2011 with a 3.70 ERA.  He was demoted to the minors before the 2012 season, but he pitched relatively effectively at the end of last year, starting six games after Stephen Strasburg was shut down.  Did Rizzo make a mistake letting Lannan go?

Jason:  Justin, if John Lannan has proven nothing over the last six years as a major league pitcher, it is he makes a competent number five starter on a contending team.   Don’t let the fact that he also makes a competent inning eating opening day starter on a 100 loss team confuse you about his talent level. The problem with John Lannan is that he is virtually your replacement level pitcher with an ERA above 4.00 and an average WAR about 1 every year.

Now this puts me in a position of defending the first three starts of the Dan Haren era, which better resembles the ill remembered Mike Bascik era minus the grooved home run to Bonds.  The deal on Haren is this, he has been a great pitcher, not a good one, a great one. Rizzo is banking on him returning to even 75% of himself. That is an upgrade over Lannan, and will prove to be so over the season.

Justin: I think we can agree that Dan Haren has a higher ceiling than John Lannan.  At his peak, Haren was a 6-win pitcher.  Lannan at his peak is probably a 3-win pitcher.  But we are talking about resource allocation.  Yes, Haren has been a great pitcher in his past, but the Nationals didn’t need a great pitcher.  Gio Gonzalez might have been the best pitcher in the National League last year.  Stephen Strasburg might be the most talented pitcher in baseball.  Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler haven’t even reached their peak.  The Nats didn’t need an ace; they needed a fifth starter.

Yes, Haren has a higher ceiling than Lannan, and all things being equal Haren is the better choice.  But all things aren’t equal here–Haren comes at twice the price.  The Nationals let their left-handed relievers walk away this offseason because they couldn’t afford it.

This leads to a question that just occurred to me: would the Nationals move Haren to the bullpen in the playoffs?  With his high K rate, he’d make a hell of an 8th inning guy, right?

Jason: Now we are getting somewhere.  Resource allocation is when it comes to the Nationals probably the most fascinating aspect about the team, and needs further examination.  Your question has changed from is Dan Haren better than John Lannan to is Dan Haren a better allocation of resources than John Lannan.  Lannan signed for 2.5 million on the free market with the Phillies, if the Nats had tendered him, he would have been north of the 6 million he made last year.  It is clear they should have non-tendered him.  Haren, signed for 13 million will never be 5 times as good a Lannan.  Fangraphs attempts to place a dollar value on all players.  By their count a 13 million dollar pitcher is about the 30th best pitcher in the league, Edwin Jackson was top 50 at 10 million value.  Ironically, the pitcher that comes the closest in value last year to 13 million without going over is Tommy Malone, who was part of the Gio trade.   All of this is a round about way of saying 13 million is the one year price for an upgrade on Jackson.  Haren was the player on the open market who fit that profile, with the experience and veteran example that the Nats staff lacks at this point.  Now, is Haren anywhere near the player he thought he was the Nats thought they were getting?

Note:  Since we began this back and forth, Lannan blew up in his last pitching performance is now on the DL for an estimated 6-8 weeks.
Justin:  Indeed, Lannan is hurt right now, but that’s a pretty big surprise.  Lannan’s had a pretty good health record since becoming a full-time starter in 2008.  I don’t think anyone foresaw his recent injury, unless Mike Rizzo is an Oracle or a Wizard.
I think you’re asking the wrong question.  It doesn’t matter if Haren is a relative value at $13 million.  It only matters how else the Nationals could have spent that money.  I’m suggesting the Nats may have been better off devoting some of the $13 million to the bullpen or saving it in case of emergency–perhaps using it in a mid-season trade.  Did the Nationals really need a “veteran” pitcher?  Haren isn’t even among their four best pitchers, meaning he wouldn’t start a game if the postseason started today.
Which leads me to my other question you didn’t answer: would you convert Dan Haren to a reliever in October?
Jason: Yes, if the season ends today Haren goes to the bullpen.  Rizzo did not want to commit to the years and dollars Burnett wanted. By the way, he has been effective this year for the Angels. There are only so many bullpen positions and by adding Soriano he pushed everybody down a slot. Effectively, Soriano replaces Burnett.
I think a veteran pitcher is exactly what the team needs, especially one known for pitching late into the game.  With a staff of power arms that tend to run pitch counts high due to being low contact pitchers, a guy who can rest the bullpen is more valuable.  Obviously, the opposite had happened.
Justin: So you’re saying Haren learns how to pitch left-handed and then dominates the playoffs?
Jason: You’re an idiot.
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