The general consensus with regard to the recent Diamondbacks and Angels swap of Dan Haren is that Arizona, while adding a nifty prospect, undersold their best trade chip. The sense is that the organization lacks direction—yes, removing Haren from the equation gives you some payroll flexibility, and someone like Tyler Skaggs helps to beef up the lower levels of the minor leagues, but how good would the team be with Haren still on the roster once they work out the other kinks?
Not to pick on Buster Olney, as he isn't the first to say it, but he believes that the Haren deal for the D'backs is similar to what the Padres did with Jake Peavy a year ago. I'm citing Olney here mostly to show that even the well-informed think this makes sense on some level. What do the two deals have in common? The contracts are somewhat close in value, and like Peavy, Haren was the highest-paid player on the roster and was dealt mostly for prospects that don't yet have a true price tag. Both pitchers had their value lowered—Peavy due to injuries and being on the disabled list while dealt and Haren for things that have not been his own fault, such as horrific defense behind him as well as pitching in a homer friendly park. That's about as far as the similarities go, though, for a variety of reasons.
Peavy's lowered valuation was because of a more serious problem. He was on the DL and had an injury history, as well as declining velocity. While not a bad pitcher on the road, he was propped up by Petco Park enough to make his numbers look better. Peavy's price tag was also higher—he was in the first year of a three-year extension with an option for 2013 that required a $4 million buyout—we're talking about a contract with more than $40 million remaining for just 2 1/2 seasons since the Padres had already paid for a portion of the 2009 salary. The option year comes in at $22 million, so if that were picked up we're talking nearly $60 million over three-plus years.
Haren is in the second year of a four-year deal that also has a 2013 option with a buyout, but his 2013 club option would need to be exercised for his remaining cost to surpass Peavy's 2009-2012 price tag. If you bought out the final year of his deal, you would have the remaining 2010 cost plus an additional $29 million over two more years.
Given he was worth 4.7, 5.8, and 7.9 WARP from 2007-09 and has been worth nearly three WARP this year in a down year, he is easily worth that price tag. The Diamondbacks traded from a position of weakness in order to create financial flexibility, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to use the money they saved to find a replacement for Haren, given the state of the pitching market and teams' reluctance to move young pitchers in trades. Trading an inexpensive stud like Max Scherzer in order to acquire Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson didn't work out well, so the desire to go with quantity over quality once again with the Haren savings strikes me as an odd decision. If they pick up two grade-C pitchers with the money saved by dealing an A-pitcher, they will find themselves with a low-ceiling rotation that's far worse off than if they just held onto Haren.
The Diamondbacks have some financial issues that require them to move money around—their payroll is higher than listed, given the dollars they owe in deferred contracts—but they are nowhere near the dire straits the Padres found themselves in last year. San Diego ended up shedding payroll until it was down to just $37 million this year, the second-lowest in the majors. The rationale behind comparing the two deals is that Arizona will improve in the same way that the Padres did, but what exactly did San Diego do with the money saved? It picked up players like Matt Stairs and Jerry Hairston Jr., at a low cost and meant to be more complementary pieces than vital assets. There has been much more of an improvement in the club due to the emergence of young players like Mat Latos, Nick Hundley, Will Venable, Luke Gregerson, and Clayton Richard, who was acquired in the Peavy deal.
There were three other arms—Aaron Poreda, Dexter Carter, and Adam Russell—acquired in that trade, and the D'backs deal features no one like Richard who can help the club now. Saunders is a placeholder, a pitcher who, like much of the rest of their rotation, can be found in many places, and without having to give up Haren to get him. You can argue that the Padres received a better package in return for Peavy (even if former prospect Poreda never pans out) who is an inferior pitcher to Haren that also costs more and was disabled at the time. That's in spite of the presence of Tyler Skaggs, who is an impressive prospect but may be no more than a number three starter in the bigs.
The Diamondbacks, like the Padres, have a solid core in place. Yet unlike the Padres after the Peavy deal, they now look weaker minus Haren. Yes, they strike out often and it brings their team batting average down, but they have been league average in True Average and with talents like Justin Upton, Miguel Montero, and Stephen Drew, those numbers could improve. They need to have better fielders on board, which would help the pitching even if it ends up hurting their offensive production a bit. Either way, they need better pitchers. Trading a starter who gets a huge percentage of his outs without the help of the defense makes them worse in that regard, and picking up lower-quality pitchers to replace him who will be more reliant on balls in play isn't going to help matters.
Trading Haren for "financial flexibility" tells me that the team is aware it needs to do something in order to improve in various areas and that it didn't want to tie up its money in Haren. The Padres didn't need Peavy to rebuild, and moving him was a key to the rebuilding process, especially with the return they got. The problem is that Haren is a much better pitcher than Peavy at this stage, and the kind of pitcher Arizona needs if it wants to remain relevant until all of those prospects they talk about having at the lower levels reach the majors. The situations may appear similar at first glance, and comparing them may make it look like Arizona knows what it is doing, but a deeper analysis shows the Diamondbacks' plan may be more akin to throwing darts than anything resembling a real strategy for the present day. Even if the Diamondbacks improve after dealing Haren, there is little chance they will be better than if they had just held onto him, particularly with the package they received.
All salary data courtesy of Cot's Contracts.