The first thing to understand is that teams know their own players better than anyone else.
So, when the Los Angeles Angels allowed right-hander Dan Haren to become a free agent Friday night after trading righty Ervin Santana two days before, club officials sent a clear message.
In their view, neither Haren nor Santana would be a cost-efficient member of their rotation next season, not at a net price of $12 million each.
Here’s the problem:
The Angels, after parting with Haren and Santana, have lost leverage with free-agent right-hander Zack Greinke, whom they badly need to re-sign.
At the moment, the team’s rotation consists of righty Jered Weaver, lefty C.J. Wilson and righties Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams.
Not exactly a championship-caliber group.
Greinke, 29, knows the Angels are in a near-desperate position. He also knows the Los Angeles Dodgers might top any offer to sign him, and that the Texas Rangers covet him, too.
Granted, the free-agent market just opened, and Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto can target other starters in free agency or trades if he fails to retain Greinke.
But at a time when the Angels also appear likely to lose right fielder Torii Hunter in free agency, their offseason is off to a decidedly curious start.
Dipoto told reporters on Friday night that the likely departures of Haren and Hunter along with Santana will help the Angels gain financial flexibility. He also claimed that the team was not “isolated” on Greinke, as if you would expect a GM to say anything else.
Financial flexibility is a worthy goal when the free-agent market is flush with talent. This market isn’t. And if the Angels fail to sign Greinke, they may end up with pitchers who are no better than Haren and Santana — and on longer deals.
Dipoto traded Santana and $1 million to the Royals for left-hander Brandon Sisk, a 27-year-old reliever who has never pitched in the majors. The Angels included cash to help defray Santana’s $13 million salary in 2013.
Dipoto tried to make a better deal with Haren, and seemed to have one in place Friday night for Chicago Cubs closer Carlos Marmol. But the trade fell apart, and when Dipoto couldn’t move Haren to another club by midnight ET — the deadline for the Angels to decide on the option — the GM chose to pay the pitcher a $3.5 million buyout rather than $15.5 million for one year.
The Marmol trade seemed all but done early Friday evening; a report out of the reliever’s native Dominican Republic said that he was headed to the Angels. Marmol apparently was the source of that report — and a non-trustworthy source, as it turned out.
A major-league executive with knowledge of the trade discussions said that the pitcher misinterpreted the Cubs’ intentions when they asked him if he would accept a trade to the Angels.
At that point, no agreement had been reached. The Cubs simply were doing their due diligence, knowing that Marmol’s contract includes partial no-trade protection that requires him to approve any deal to the Angels.
Marmol, according to the executive, would have given the Cubs that approval. But the Cubs, as the talks reached a critical stage, backed out of the deal, the executive said.
Neither the Cubs nor Angels gave an explanation for what happened. Finances might have caused the breakdown; Marmol will earn $9.8 million next season, and the Cubs likely would have required cash in the trade to make the salary exchange more even.
Another possibility is that the Cubs grew alarmed by Haren’s medical records. Often when a trade collapses for medical reasons, teams refrain from comment rather than damage the player’s value by discussing his physical condition publicly.
Haren, 32, dealt with lower back stiffness last season and also showed a marked decline in velocity. But as one scout put it, “You know any 32-year-olds with (nearly) 2,000 innings (pitched) who have good medicals?”
It’s a fair question, and the breakdown in the talks marked the second time in less than four months that the Cubs failed to complete a deal after it leaked publicly.
The team reached agreement with the Atlanta Braves on a deal for right-hander Ryan Dempster last July, but Dempster never waived his no-trade clause for the Braves and the Cubs ended up sending him to the Texas Rangers.
A trade for Marmol could have filled the Angels’ need for a closer — Marmol, 30, lost that job with the Cubs last April, but regained it the following month and produced a career-best 19 consecutive saves, finishing the season with a 3.42 ERA.
Instead, the Angels got nothing for Haren and very little for Santana. Dipoto deserves only so much blame for those outcomes; he inherited both contracts when he took over as GM last offseason, and the pitchers’ expensive club options — combined with their mediocre 2012 performances — made them difficult to trade.
Alas, Dipoto now is in perhaps a worse position than before. He bid farewell to Haren and Santana without identifying their replacements, leaving the Angels to operate in a thin market.
Yes, teams know their own players better than anyone else. This early in the offseason, the Angels deserve the benefit of the doubt. But suddenly, the pressure is on Dipoto to fill the gaps.
The Angels are going to look bad if Haren and/or Santana again prove viable members of a major league rotation. And they’re going to look bad if they fail to re-sign Greinke.