Tony Reagins is such a tease. First he exasperates the fanbase with a pointless trade for Alberto Callaspo, then he pulls off this stunner, both in the same weekend. This is the trade he meant to do last August when he acquired Scott Kazmir: buy low on a starting pitcher, sell high on a couple of promising prospects. Obviously the little detail about Kazmir being broken wrecked that plan, but Dan Haren's tough season is merely a statistical fluctuation. Forget 2010 for the moment and consider the near future, the middle-term. We can't know what the Angels gave up in Pat Corbin and (presumably) Tyler Skaggs for another five years, but we can talk about the next two seasons.
First, the necessary statistical argument. Dan Haren has exactly one strikeout for each of the 141 innings he's pitched this season, but only 29 unintentional walks. He also induces groundballs more frequently than most pitchers who miss bats. It all adds up to 3.38 xFIP for a 29 year-old pitcher. That is a sabermetric boner right there. His inflated ERA results from an unfortunate 13.9% HR/FB rate and a laughable .350 BABIP. Both of those are unsustainably high, and will surely drop in the next two months. There's your Dave Cameron paragraph.
Overall, Dan Haren gives the Angels an effective and durable front-rotation arm with a below-market salary through 2013, should they choose to exercise his option. The first four names in next year's rotation look deadly already: Haren, Weaver, Santana, Pineiro. Thanks for that, Ken Rosental. That is obviously important, but here's why I'm really encouraged by the deal.
We've seen that Tony Reagins won't hesitate to fix organizational mistakes (see: Matthews, Gary, Jr., cross-reference: Hunter, Torii). That is the luxury of a high payroll. What I think Reagins and the rest of the front office understand is that free-agent mega-pitchers are always bad investments. The price tag for high-profile starting pitching--Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Barry Zito, etc.--is set so ridiculously high by the East Coast Evil Empires (and the occasional dumbass like Brian Sabean) that there is virtually no chance of recouping salary with actual production.
With seven-year contracts worth more than $20 million per season floating around out there, a top-shelf starter would pretty much have to perform at his peak every year for the rest of his life to earn his keep. That is just not a reasonable thing to expect from a pitcher. If you've been around awhile, you might remember Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown. Pitchers get hurt all the time, and they lose velocity and overall effectiveness with age. To top it off, ERA is such a finicky bitch that sometimes you don't get the player you thought you were getting.
For instance, Barry Zito was a disaster from the start, yet he's still going to make $20 million in 2013. Sure CC is a solid pitcher now, but do you want to be paying $23 million for that fatass after he turns 35? Some Mets fans are terrified to see former K-master Johan Santana starting to pitch more like Jeremy Bonderman now that he's 31, and he still has $60 million left on his deal. These days even second-rate contracts for second-rate guys like AJ Burnett and (ahem) John Lackey are looking like albatrosses fairly early on.
The way baseball economics works right now, teams are falling over themselves to sign their young players to extensions before they reach free agency. That's pretty much the only way to obtain talented players in their primes without TARP funding, and it's especially true for pitching. The scramble is so intense that even big fat buckets of blah like Joe Blanton are cashing in.
The Angels made such a move with Ervin Santana after his spectacular 2008 season. His elbow promptly exploded. So it goes. With Scott Kazmir they tried to acquire another contract that was below-market when it was signed. Kazmir has since decided to work out with Oliver Perez. So it goes. Now with Haren they've given the finger to Cliff Lee and the rest of the free-agent pitching market. Not that it was any good this year to begin with. Let someone else pay for Cliff Lee's buffet dinners and rehab assignments.
My initial impression of Tony Reagins was way off. The first thing he did as the Angels' general manager was sign a check for about three times what I thought Torii Hunter was worth. Since then he's been very shrewd. He waits out the market and buys low. Sometimes his shrewdness has bit him in the ass (remember when we all thought that Brian Fuentes was a decent signing?). Sometimes he has tried too hard (he probably thought he was getting a bargain on a closer in Fernando Rodney). Sometimes he just seems confused (why do we need another second baseman again?). But at least I think I see where he's going. He'd rather try and fail at being Michael Corleone than succeed at being Fredo.
That's not the worst way to be. He's set up the rotation nicely for 2011 and 2012. The Rangers can have 2010. I'm going to enjoy watching Justin Smoak safely buried in Seattle for the next few years while Cliff Lee clutters the Yankee disabled list. But shrewdness has its limitations. One day I'd like to see Tony Reagins take that blank check Arte Moreno gave him and buy something shiny (but not overpriced) instead of using it to paper over his own mistakes.