In one corner, there was the champ - or at least the one who was supposed to make the Nationals World Series contenders. Dan Haren stood there weighing in at a cool $13 million. In the other corner was John Lannan - dispatched twice last season by general manager Mike Rizzo as a pretender - weighing in at a paltry $2.5 million.
Rarely does a personnel decision get such a head-to-head comparison. But Rizzo fired Lannan to begin the 2012 season. He cut him from the team and then did not offer him a contract at the end of 2012. Instead, the Nationals spent far more to bring in Haren. When Haren posed in his new Nationals uniform, Lannan was nobody.
The Lannan-Haren fight hardly shaped up as a fair contest. The Phillies put Ryan Howard on the disabled list prior to last night’s game, while the Nationals had everyone healthy for the first time since April. Haren faced a Phillies team that no longer resembles the Bronx Bombers even at their best. Lannan had home field advantage, but he is just a journeyman lefty.
Lannan took the early rounds and all that followed. The Nationals barely laid a glove on him until the fourth inning, but he got off the ropes when Bryce Harper was called out on a close play at second base. Lannan’s fastball never topped 90 mph, but the glass jaw Rizzo said was there for everyone to see was never in evidence Monday night.
Meanwhile, Haren got ripped to start the game. The Phillies worked him over against the buckle from the start and it looked like he might not make it out of that inning. But they could not put him away. Haren survived the first and another rough inning in the third but it took everything he had - 95 pitches - to get through five innings, behind by only a 2-0 margin. Michael Young nearly took his head off with a shot in the fifth, but for the most part, the Phillies held him up, making him look better than he really was.
By contrast, Lannan pitched deep into the ballgame. He went eight scoreless innings and Jonathan Papelbon closed out Washington’s four-game winning streak in the ninth by a 3-2 score.
John Lannan got $5 million from Washington last year and $2.5 million from the Phillies for 2013. Rizzo spent $11 million to bring in hard-throwing mediocrity in Edwin Jackson to replace Lannan. Adding Haren’s 2013 paycheck brings the cost of replacing Lannan to $24 million. Asking whether that money has been worthwhile hardly seems worth the ink.
Yes, Lannan has spent time on the disabled list this year. Last year at Syracuse, he was less than stellar. But when it mattered, when Washington needed a win to stave off the charging Braves last September - and could not go to Stephen Strasburg - Lannan got two key wins. As a fill-in starter, Lannan took the mound for Washington six times in 2012. He won four, lost one, and had an ERA of 4.13.
Haren for Lannan may be one of the worst moves the Nationals brain trust has made since Stan Kasten went on radio in Philadelphia inviting their fans to D.C. Haren was not crushed by the Phillies last night, but better teams would have never let him out of the first inning. If the Nationals want to compete seriously for a playoff spot, it is hard to believe that Haren is the answer for the fourth starting role for the final months of the season. He cannot be counted on to keep the team winning when every game matters.
What Lannan proves is that the answer can sometimes be right there staring you in the face while you look everywhere, just too damned stubborn to recognize what you have at hand. Maybe the big-spending option will work the next time. Maybe Matt Garza or Bud Norris is the right move to shore up the back end of the rotation. But Rizzo is 0-for-2 and it is time to move on to whatever the next option will be, The Nats need someone who can beat the Braves and the Cardinals, two teams Haren is unlikely to tame.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.