Dan Haren told reporters this winter he was surprised by the concerns about his health when he hit the free agent market. After all, the 32-year-old right-hander had made just one trip to the disabled list in his 10-year major league career. The Los Angeles Angels put the pitcher on the DL in July 2012 with what was described then as a lower back issue. In Haren's third season in Los Angeles following a 2010 trade from Arizona, he started 6-8 with a 4.86 ERA, 24 walks (2.08 BB/9) and 86 strikeouts (7.47 K/9) in 17 starts and 103 2/3 innings pitched over which opposing hitters had a .297/.333/.484 line against him.
The back issue, which started in spring training, had forced him to alter his mechanics to the point where he said he was just throwing instead of pitching, but he had tried to work through it. After two weeks-plus on the DL, he returned to the Angels rotation and went 6-5 in the second half of 2012, with a 3.58 ERA, 14 walks (1.72 BB/9) and 56 strikeouts (6.90 K/9) in 13 starts and 73 innings pitched, holding the opposition to a .243/.282/.432 line. When he hit the free agent market, he found potential suitors were worried about his health, but not just his back - also a hip issue he'd dealt with since he was a starter at Pepperdine in college and a notable decrease in velocity.
"It was frustrating for me," Haren told reporters after he took a one-year, $13 million deal from the Nationals, "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 from a start in 10 years for it. But I don't know what MRIs say, I don't know how I test out."
The Nats looked at his medical records and were comfortable with a one-year deal, which Haren took when the multi-year deal he was after didn't materialize.
"I understand that teams had concerns," Haren said, "otherwise I probably would have gotten a three- or four-year deal, but that said, I think I have a lot to prove this year. Very confident I'm going to stay healthy. I feel great right now."
The first half of the 2013 campaign was another tough one, however, as Haren struggled to keep the ball in the yard. In his first 15 starts in a Nationals uniform, Haren was 4-9 with Washington going 4-11 when he took the mound. Haren had a 6.15 ERA, 13 walks (1.43 BB9) and 67 strikeouts (7.35 K/9) in 82 innings in which opposing hitters had a .306/.340/.548 line and 19 home runs (2.09 HR/9) before the Nationals put him on the disabled list.
Haren would later admit that after a stretch of particularly rough starts in June, in which he had a 9.82 ERA and seven home runs (3.44 HR/9) allowed in 18 1/3 innings, he worried that he was a bad outing or two away from being released. He reluctantly agreed to the second DL stint of his career, with the Nationals describing the issue as shoulder weakness. Davey Johnson told reporters he hoped the rest would help Haren come back in the second half as he had in 2012, though the issues he was dealing with in each instance were seemingly unconnected.
"He had a little similar problem last year, it was his back, that he went on the disabled list," Johnson explained, "His back, he said, is fine. And he's a gamer. Wasn't particularly pleased to be going on the disabled list. But knew that it was probably the best thing."
Rest and a cortisone shot convinced Haren that he may have had more of an issue that he thought.
Haren worked on creating more of a difference in velocity between his fastball and his cutter and, upon returning to the Nats' rotation, once again found himself having a second-half resurgence.
"He had a bigger spread in his pitches, which is great," his manager told reporters after Haren's second start following the DL stint. "I think that's more him."
Haren's command improved, as well, with less balls left up in the zone and a corresponding drop in home runs surrendered. Johnson liked what he saw.
"Much better," Johnson said, "And, I mean, very consistent. He didn't have any blips on the screen, like one bad inning where that came up. He was outstanding."
Haren has continued to pitch well after the rest. In seven starts since returning from the DL, he's arguably been the Nationals' most reliable starter. Over his last 43 innings on the mound, including seven strong innings in yesterday's loss to the San Francisco Giants, Haren has posted a 2.30 ERA with 10 walks (2.09 BB/9), 42 srikeouts (8.79 K/9) and just three home runs (0.63 HR/9) allowed.
The injury issues which led to the first two DL stints of Haren's 11-year career were seemingly unconnected, so the Nats skipper's hope that the same scenario that played out last summer would again this season made sense only in terms of tidy narrative. But things played out as the Nationals manager predicted.
Haren told reporters recently he didn't expect to be back in the nation's capital in 2014, but having seen what he's still capable of doing when healthy, there might be another team out there willing to take a chance on Haren this winter if the Nationals don't try to bring him back - even when it looked a few weeks ago like he might have reached the end of an impressive career.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for href="http://www.federalbaseball.com/"target="_new">Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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.