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3/10/2013 5:27 P.M. ET

Washington perfect place for Haren to return to form

Right-hander, 32, had to settle for one-year deal, will be Nats' fifth starter

LAKELAND, Fla. -- In the space of a single season, Dan Haren went from elite workhorse and Cy Young candidate to a near afterthought. Pitching for the Nationals in 2013, he has a very real chance to make the reverse trip in just as short a time span.

Haren, 32, tossed four effective innings for the Nationals in their 2-1 loss to the Tigers on Sunday. He gave up some hard contact, but he threw strikes and sat around 90 miles per hour. At this point in his career, Haren doesn't need results in Spring Training. He needs to be healthy and get ready, and Sunday's game allowed him to keep checking both those boxes.

The Angels bought out Haren's one-year, $15.5 million option this winter, making him a free agent, but not before they tried to trade him to the Cubs. That deal fell through, and a month later Haren had signed a one-year deal to be Washington's No. 5 starter.

This, in a market where Anibal Sanchez signed for five years. In every offseason of their respective careers prior to this one, Haren would have been the far more coveted commodity. One year of substandard results and some back issues, and he was relegated to taking a one-year, make-good contract (admittedly for a very nice $13 million).

If Haren pitches like he ought to, there will be no need for him to settle next winter. He's feeling good and pitching well, and he has a chance to have a very big year. He'll be pitching in front of a very good defense, backed by a very good offense. It's all in place for him to be much more than another fifth starter on a one-year deal.

"He's been great from Day 1," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's been impressive since his first [throw]. He knows what he needs to do. He knows what he wants to work on in the spring. Great command, good stuff, great makeup."

Haren actually was better last year than the overall numbers would indicate. He started out strong, pitching well over his first 12 starts. He finished strong, with a 2.81 ERA and more than eight strikeouts per walk over his final eight starts. It was a 10-start stretch in the middle, as he dealt with back issues, that sunk his season numbers.

A year earlier, he posted his seventh straight season with more than 215 innings, managed a 3.17 ERA and finished seventh in Cy Young balloting. This is not a guy who's gone ages since he was good. He was excellent, recently. He needs to find that form again, but there's plenty of reason to believe he will.

Even if it's a little more difficult than it was in the past. Haren admits he needs to do some maintenance at 32 he didn't require at 22.

"When I was younger, I wouldn't even go into the training room for a month," he said. "I'd just pick up the ball, go out there, get on the mound and throw it. But now, I'll be there early tomorrow getting worked on. It's just about taking care of [things]. But physically, I feel really good now. The ball is coming out of my hand really good -- almost as good as it did at any point last year."

Haren's repertoire is the same as it's been in recent years, with some small wrinkles. He still throws fewer fastballs than nearly any starter in the league, relying on a heavy dose of cutters, curveballs and split-fingered fastballs. He's tinkering with the cutter a bit, but basically it's what it's always been.

"For the most part, it's the same stuff, same slop," he cracked.

He does want to come inside on right-handed hitters more this year, something he made a point of putting into practice on Sunday. Right-handers crushed Haren last year, to the tune of a .320 average, which was a change of pace for a pitcher who has had very little platoon split in either direction for much of his career. It hardly seems accidental that in a year where he stopped backing right-handers off the plate, they started hitting him hard.

"There would be games that would go by that I wouldn't throw anything inside to righties," he said. "It's a matter of keeping hitters honest, being able to work both sides of the plate. I was just stubborn in the past. I felt like I wanted them to beat me out over the plate, but I was getting beat out over the plate. So I had to make adjustments."

Arresting that trend would go a long way toward getting him right again. It's just another reason to think that he could be one of the steals of the winter -- and a lot more expensive next winter.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.