Dan Haren had no control over his fate as Friday night stretched into Saturday morning on the East Coast. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Chicago Cubs came together, then shoved apart on a deal that would have sent Haren to Chicago on the eve of 2012 MLB free agency. Instead, the Angels simply declined the team option they held on Haren’s services in 2013, saving $12 million by paying his buyout and setting him free.

Haren twisted in the wind for roughly four days leading up to this decision, and for the final four hours, fans and observers around the league twisted with him. Now, Haren is a free agent, but it’s hard to say just how much about his situation has changed.

Without question, Haren could now choose any team in baseball for his own. His talents are such that, at some price, any GM in MLB would happily welcome him into the fold. That’s freedom. Thanks to the $3.5 million the Angels had to paper-clip to his walking papers, he can afford to accept a creative, incentive-laden or back-loaded offer (okay, maybe not back-loaded… more on that later). That’s freedom, too. Unfortunately, when the Cubs peeled out of a deal the pundits had already tripped over themselves to exalt, and the Angels followed that by simply tearing up their pact with Haren and throwing up their hands, those teams sent signals to the rest of the league that seem likely to hem Haren into a corner going forward.

Back problems plagued Haren during the 2012 season, which ended as his worst in the Majors. Not only did his ERA balloon to 4.33, with attendant slack in his peripheral stats, but Haren also saw his innings total (never lower than 216 from 2005-11) drop to 176.2. A pitcher who liberally blends his fastball with a cutter and split-fingered fastball saw all three drop substantially in average velocity this season. He missed fewer bats than in any season since 2004, and suffered for it. None of the above necessarily means Haren is past his utility. If he were, he would not have been able to fan 56 and walk only 14 in 73 innings pitched after returning from a brief DL stint in July. He turned just 32 in September, so while his diminished velocity means he will no longer be the ace he once was in the future, it does not mean that more diminution of velocity is imminent. Haren could plateau right here, continue to strike out four or five times as many batters as he walks, learn to pitch away from the power to which he has been very vulnerable at times, and be a solid second-tier starter for another half-decade. Whenever the perceived cause of a pitcher’s ineffectiveness is chronic injury, though, the uncertainty level goes from high (for all starting pitchers) to What-in-Blazing-Saddles-Starring-Gene-Wilder-Can-We-Possibly-Expect.

Given that variable, but also given the upside risk Haren presents, we have a long uphill climb to find out how Haren got here, and therefore, what the market for his services will look like. Here’s what we know:

1. Early this week, the Kansas City Royals traded for Ervin Santana, a fellow incumbent Angels starter who had been staring at an option unlikely to be exercised. The Royals gave up virtually nothing, and certainly much less than they had given the industry to believe they would be willing to give up in order to upgrade their atrocious starting rotation. They’ll also pay eight figures for Santana’s services in 2013. It would seem that GM Dayton Moore actively chose Santana over Haren, at least at the relative prices the Angels attached to each. It should be noted that because of the injuries that obliterated the team’s big-league rotation in 2012 (and stands to do the same for some portion of 2013, as Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino recover from elbow surgeries) and thinned their minor-league depth, Kansas City needed to place a certain premium on certainty and stability. This factor doubles in importance considering both the financial standing and the philosophy of the team, which leave less margin for error than many teams have when pondering the addition of an expensive centerpiece. Moreover, the Angels seemed focused (at that point) on a much more gainful Haren trade than the one they nearly consummated later. Still and all, the Royals’ choice is somewhat telling in retrospect.

2. Haren publicly discussed his expectation that he was about to be traded with the media earlier this week.

3. The Cubs entered the picture as suitors to Haren Friday morning, and seemed to have settled on a deal with the Angels at around 8 PM Eastern. The deal came apart over the following three hours, with few or no concrete details to demonstrate clearly what derailed it. Cubs closer Carlos Marmol was the return upon which the teams had apparently settled, with the two sides then shuffling money as needed to make the deal work. One thing upon which a number of the reports seemingly agree: Chicago, not Los Angeles, walked away. There are a few potential reasons for that. First, and ostensibly most likely, is that the Cubs’ trainers and other medical staff took one look at Haren’s medical report (probably especially regarding the back) and had to be restrained from self-immolation at the thought of keeping this bag of crooked bones effective and on the mound. Second, the Cubs’ interest may have been contingent upon securing an extension or promise of same from Haren, in order to make sure he would have real value to them despite their lack of viable competitive prospects in 2013, and they were unable to procure it. Third, Chicago might have seen through a sort of screen pass being executed by Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, determining that Dipoto had no other recourse but to decline the option if no trade came to pass. If that be the case, perhaps Chicago felt it could more efficiently grab Haren (with a chance to lock in 2014 and maybe even 2015) on the open market. On the other hand, maybe they simply used their knowledge of Dipoto’s compromised position to try to extort better terms in trade, and the deal fell apart when the Angels stood firm. Fourth, though quite unlikely in this particular case, it’s possible that money stood in the way. Intuitively, the two teams could have pretty fairly swapped the two contracts with the players still attached to them, but the premature reports of the deal seemed to imply Los Angeles would send cash to Chicago in the deal. That doesn’t add up, and maybe it’s what sent both sides to the mat. Finally, it’s possible (though, again, unlikely) that Chicago never intended to complete this deal at all. They might just have wanted to get a look at the Angels’ medical info on Haren, preferring to trust them than Haren’s agency if and when he became a free agent. For that matter, they could have no substantial interest in Haren. Perhaps they wanted Haren to get to the open market, at least so as to soften the market for their other pitching targets, and wanted to distract the Angels in order to force that eventuality. Okay, we’re working our way into the realm of the absurd here.

At any rate, free agency is underway in MLB, and Dan Haren (thrice traded, in big deals, never yet his own man) is among the liberated. He might find the market for his future work a bit underwhelming, but he’s made it to market, and that’s something. If I’m running a baseball team, I approach Haren as I would Shaun Marcum, not Scott Baker. Uncertainty rules and can’t be ignored here, but Haren and Marcum have a track record of both durability and excellence in the face of tough competition. A one-year deal worth roughly $8 million and a vesting option for 2014 in eight figures, based on innings pitched. A two-year pact at $6 million per annum, with a club option for 2015. Haren should get slightly larger numbers than those, but that’s the gist. Incentive-based deals are somewhat passé for pitchers of obvious big-league quality, but these team-friendly options have stepped into their stead. Haren will be among a large crop of pitchers whose contracts might feature those this winter, but thanks to the path that led him here, he’s become a singularly intriguing part of the Hot Stove League for 2012-13.

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