The Angels have won three straight AL West titles, and despite being six games behind the Rangers, aren't giving up on the idea of making it four in a row.
Striking out of the blue, Angels GM Tony Reagins completed a trade that not only makes his team better over the next 10 weeks, but better over the next three seasons. By acquiring Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks without giving up any top prospects, Reagins set a high bar for his fellow GMs in the runup to the trade deadline, buying low on one of the game's top starting pitchers.
Haren replaces Joe Saunders in the Angels' rotation, Saunders being part of the package heading east in the deal. On the surface, the swap may not seem like much of an upgrade; Haren's 4.60 ERA is a match for Saunders' 4.62 mark, and Haren has been working in the DH-free NL. To appreciate the gap between the two pitchers, you have to look past ERA. Haren leads the NL in strikeouts and has an outstanding 4.8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His ERA has been driven up by unusually high rates of hits on balls in play (a .350 BABIP despite no underlying change in batted-ball distribution) and home runs on fly balls (13.9%, vs. a league average of 10.0%). He has pitched almost exactly as well as he did a year ago, when he finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting and made his third consecutive All-Star team. Saunders, on the other hand, is a pitch-to-contact guy whose command has deteriorated since his surprising 2008 campaign: his 1.42 K/BB is a career-worst. His ERA accurately reflects what he is.
Based on their underlying skills, Haren should allow about 20-23 fewer runs down the stretch than Saunders would have, while also taking a handful of innings away from the bullpen. At the standard estimate of 10 runs gained or saved equalling one win, he makes the Angels two wins better. Essentially, this trade matches what the Rangers did in adding Cliff Lee; and in a race that could well be decided on the season's final weekend, adding two to three wins is a huge improvement.
For the Diamondbacks, the news is grim. Saunders is a back-rotation starter with no upside and enough service time that he's in line to make about $6 million in 2011. Haren makes $12.75 million next year, so they're not even saving much money in the deal in the short term. Rafael Rodriguez is a 25-year-old right-handed reliever who has been moderately effective in the minors since moving to the bullpen in 2007. He's a groundball pitcher, not a strikeout guy, with the limited upside that implies. Patrick Corbin was unranked on the Angels' Top 11 Prospects list published by Baseball Prospectus. More polish than projection, Corbin is also a low-upside prospect. The 21-year-old lefty has pitched very well in a difficult environment this season, striking out 64 men and walking 18 in 11 starts for Rancho Cucamonga.
There's a player to be named coming back to the Diamondbacks as well, though it will not be Futures Game stud outfielder Mike Trout. Speculation has centered on Tyler Skaggs, a supplemental first-round pick a year ago. Skaggs was ranked No. 9 by Prospectus, and as a prospect is something of an embryo, a 19-year-old with a projectable body and raw skills, pitching well in the Midwest League this season.
Whether Skaggs or another player, though, the fourth man in the deal won't change the evaluation of it. The Diamondbacks traded Haren and got back no top-50 prospects, maybe no top-100 prospects. If the goal was to save money, they failed as well; the difference between what they'll pay Saunders and what they would have paid Haren is likely to be washed away by the damage done by what has now been made clear: the Diamondbacks are focused on the long term, and unlikely to be contenders in the NL West for a few years. If there's a model for how not to handle the trade of a high-priced, high-value player, this is it.
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