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30 Questions: Will Aaron Harang bounce back in '09?

3/27/2009

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Will Aaron Harang bounce back in 2009?

Blame Dusty Baker.

Hey, it has been popular for not only fantasy owners to do this over the years, but general fans of the teams he has managed as well. Despite being a more successful manager than most realize, Baker has received his fair share of backlash on how he handles pitchers, young players, fills out his lineups … you name it. And the recent plight of Aaron Harang is another on the list of arguments about how one manager can affect player performance.



The date was May 25, and I doubt Reds, Padres or fantasy fans had an inkling of what was to come. Many daily-league fantasy owners probably didn't even have Harang active for the Sunday afternoon game at Petco Park, but when these sub-.500 teams went extra innings -- and then some -- it meant Baker had to do something a bit unconventional. Harang was summoned for the 13th inning despite having thrown 103 pitches and getting lit up by the Padres in the first game of the series three days earlier. He'd leave four innings and 63 pitches later, looking terrific in striking out nine of 15 hitters and allowing nary a run. Who knew after a gem like that was absolutely the time to sell high?


Harang's season ERA dropped to 3.32, in line with past seasons that had made him one of the top 15 starting pitchers in most leagues on draft day in both 2007 and '08. Harang was a durable strikeout artist who piled on the innings and could be counted on to win his fair share, an ace an owner could acquire cheaper than the more well-known hurlers. When that May 25 game mercifully ended in 18 innings -- Baker also summoned Edinson Volquez in relief, and he lost -- fantasy owners had little knowledge how Harang's season was about to change for the worse. He'd go 4-11 after that. His ERA rose to 5.59 at one point. He missed more than a month because of a disabled-list stint for a forearm strain. He was no longer a fantasy ace. Can we blame this all on Baker using his ace on two days' rest in an otherwise meaningless late-May game, or was this destined to happen anyway?


Whether all the innings in past seasons piled up to hiccup Harang's season or Baker abused him, the fact is Harang was a very good fantasy pitcher before May 25, and I have full confidence he's going to return to that level in 2009. Maybe I'm just more willing to overlook certain trends in favor of others, but Harang fanned an average of 217 hitters in 2006 and '07, winning 16 games each time with a cumulative ERA and WHIP of 3.74 and 1.20. Those numbers scream near-ace to me, and the fact that he's going outside the top 45 starting pitchers in ESPN average live drafts tells me people select their players based on numbers, not how those numbers were achieved. After he came off the DL last season, Harang struggled for a few starts, then got back on track and went six consecutive starts of allowing three or fewer runs.

I've seen Harang pitch a few times this spring, and while I fully admit that's rarely a good barometer, because even he admits he's working on his pitches, I do like what I've seen. His fastball is back to prior levels. He's not walking hitters. And he recently went six innings against the Pirates without allowing any hits at all, telling reporters afterward he was able to throw his changeup and slider in any count and keep hitters off-balance. He says he's healthy, and now that we see his velocity and command back, why doubt Harang going forward?



Like many pitchers who are doubted and have something to prove, Harang came to Reds camp this spring looking to pitch like the ace he has been. He lost 25 pounds, and seemed at peace with how his 2008 season had gone awry.



"You look at the back of everybody's baseball card, they're bound to have a bad year," Harang said earlier this spring. "It seemed like last year was it. Nothing really went my way at all. I just have to keep going out there, making pitches and keeping a positive attitude and let the rest of the team play behind me."



Let's just hope he isn't used in relief again anytime soon.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.