If Dan Haren has hip and back problems that threaten his career and scare off potential employers, it’s news to the right-hander, whose one-year, $13 million deal with the Nationals became official Friday after he passed the physical performed earlier in the week.
“I’m 100 percent confident I’ll be healthy this year and I feel I’ll be able to contribute at a high level,” he told reporters during a conference call Friday afternoon.
Haren admits to dealing with a nagging hip problem, but said it is something he’s pitched with for pretty much his entire college and professional careers. Though he went on the disabled list last July with back stiffness, Haren said that he could have pitched through the discomfort but instead yielded to decision by Angels management, which preferred he utilize the All-Star break to more effectively rest his balky back.
“It’s tough for someone to deal with lingering questions about something I’ve never missed a day for. ... That said, there’s been plenty of interest in me. My medical stuff is out there and there’s still tons of interest,” Haren said.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo certainly wasn’t put off by Haren’s medical reports, having identified the 10-year veteran with 119 victories under his belt as a primary and affordable offseason target. Rizzo even left the Winter Meetings in Nashville a day early, so he could meet with Haren and tour him around Nationals Park.
Any persistent concerns about Haren’s health were quickly put to rest once team medical personnel did a little hands-on work on his back during Thursday’s examination. The announcement of the deal was delayed until Haren’s bloodwork came back Friday, Rizzo said.
“He pitched with the (hip) condition in college and throughout his professional and major league career,” Rizzo said during a conference call. “The back was less of a concern to us once we took a look at the MRI ... and our doctor put his hands on (Haren’s back). He signed off on him and said (the back and hip) were risks within the guidelines of acceptable.”
Based on the fact that he had feelers from several other teams, Haren figured the medicals weren’t going to be an issue.
He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join a rotation that already boasts right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who will be pitching his first full major league season without an innings limit, and left-hander Gio Gonzalez, a 21-game winner who was a finalist for the National League Cy Young Award.
“It’s a really exciting rotation to be a part of - and I’ve been a part of some good ones,” said the 32-year-old.
A subpar 2012 - in addition to the stint on the DL, Haren had a 12-13 record, the first time he’s ever finished below .500, and a 4.33 ERA, his second-highest since he became a full-time starter in 2005 - might have concerned some suitors.
But Haren insisted that his struggles were rooted primarily in mechanical issues once he returned from the disabled list, and that it just took a while to get them straightened out.
Haren pitched six innings and won each of this first two starts after returning from the DL. He worked six innings in a no-decision in his next outing, then struggled mightily - seven innings pitched and 10 runs allowed - over his next starts, both losses. He made seven more starts, never failing to work into the fifth inning and five times getting past the sixth.
While Haren said half-jokingly that the second-half struggles and mysterious concern over his medicals might have cost him a chance at a multi-year deal, the Nationals had already identified him as a primary target to fill out their rotation.
Manager Davey Johnson said at the Winter Meetings that he liked the idea of having a veteran in the rotation to work with decidedly younger counterparts. Haren is certainly willing to fill that role - once he gets his bearings, of course. Except for part of two seasons with St. Louis at the start of his career, Haren has pitched exclusively on the West Coast, for Oakland, Arizona and the Los Angeles Angels. Suddenly, he’ll be on the East Coast for the first time.
“I’ll do all I can. I’m pretty good at talking to guys. ... With everything, it’s going to take some time. I’m not going to be myself in spring training,” he said.
Haren hopes the five-man starting staff can develop a bond that transcends the playing field and clubhouse, and that rotation members should be “each other’s biggest fans.”
Rizzo is banking on the notion that Haren will contribute like a guy who led the American League with 34 starts as recently as 2011, a three-time All-Star who boasts stellar advanced metrics.
“He’s a talented workhorse, a guy who pitches quality innings - and a lot of them,” Rizzo said.
Update: Rizzo reported no progress in negotiations with free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, nor any news on the team’s attempts to secure another left-handed reliever.