If there is one thing that Dan Haren has almost always been able to call himself, it's a West Coast guy. Haren was born in California, went to high school and college there and has spent the majority of his 10-year major league career with teams housed either in the state or not far from it.
Yet there he was in the wee hours last Tuesday morning agreeing to a one-year contract with the Washington Nationals.
"I just thought that if the Nationals were competitive with what other teams were offering, the Nationals were just a better fit for me," Haren, who did have other opportunities, said Friday.
Washington, a team that will make one 10-day sojourn to the left coast in May and otherwise stay primarily out of the Pacific time zone, was the team Haren targeted as his best fit, as long as the Nationals wanted him. They did.
Two winters ago, the Nationals felt they had to add an extra year — at $21 million — to their offer to get outfielder Jayson Werth. They had to, they sensed, if they wanted to lure a top free agent to a team that had lost nearly 300 games in the previous three seasons. They knew they had a young stable of talent, but they had to convince everyone else.
A few months removed from a 98-win season, the National League East title and their first playoff appearance, the Nationals are finding far more dance partners at the free agent social. Their needs are few, but they've found plenty of people interested in filling them. They don't mind.
"I think this is a nice destination for players," said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who noted that his conversations with agents at this year's winter meetings were much more focused and specialized.
That's a change from the days where he'd talk with an agent or a team who knew he had several holes on his roster to fill and plenty of suggestions on who could fit them.
"It's a beautiful city, it's a great ballpark and it's got a great fan base," Rizzo said. "It's an up-and-coming team. If you're a pitcher, it's a great place to be because with the amount of runs we score, the defense we play and the athleticism we have on the team, it's something that really attracts a lot of players.
"People really recognize that this is a team that's going to be good to play for, for a long time. It's gotten a whole lot easier to talk to players and recruit players. Players are actually seeking us out to recruit us for them."
Last week, as the baseball world descended on the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., Nationals owner Mark Lerner found himself surrounded by well-wishers. Most acknowledged the team's abrupt and sour ending, falling in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, but often only as a side note in an otherwise congratulatory conversation.
Manager Davey Johnson's media session was one of the most well-attended of the week as he proclaimed the Nationals' slogan for 2013 to be "World Series or bust." And while many were awed by the contracts being doled out at the meetings and shortly thereafter, the Nationals just worried about themselves. They signed Haren, as well as lefty Zach Duke, and looked back with pride on the trade for Denard Span.
They didn't worry about the rest of the league. They let the rest of the league worry about them.
"You can see them getting better almost every year," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "They're the team to beat. There's no question in my mind. We've got to go into spring training and our goal is to win the division. [But] they're very, very formidable."
"They deserved to win our division, they played the best baseball all year long," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
If anyone knew the position Johnson was in this offseason, it's Manuel, who was used to being atop the NL East after five consecutive division titles. But if anyone could commiserate with the Nationals' feelings of emptiness immediately after the season ended, it, too, was Manuel.
With that in mind, he wasn't ready to concede just yet.
"A couple of years ago, we won 102 games, and we got eliminated," he said. "What does that tell you? That tells you that anything can happen once you get into the playoffs. But at the same time, if you play right and things are going your way and [you're playing] the kind of baseball that I talk about playing, I think you've always got a chance."
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