In the same season Dan Haren made his major league debut with St. Louis Cardinals, the 2001 second-round pick of the organization made perhaps his most important stop on his way to the big leagues.
The year was 2003 and the then-22-year-old Haren joined a Tennessee Smokies team that featured future major leaguers such as Rick Ankiel, Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina after being placed at the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate out of spring training. Haren steadily made his way through the Cardinals organization two seasons prior to coming to Tennessee in 2003, and the right-hander earned a spot in Tennessee after he went a combined 13-12 with a 2.92 ERA in 40 appearances at Low-A New Jersey, Single-A Peoria and High-A Potomac.
But a change in geographical location wasn’t the only elevation adjustment Haren made in 2003; the pitcher further elevated his game with the Smokies.
Haren’s march to St. Louis gained considerable momentum when he went a perfect 6-0 with a 0.82 ERA, 49 strikeouts and six walks in 55.0 innings pitched for the Smokies. The 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher proved overpowering as he struck out eight batters per nine innings and possessed a WHIP of 0.764.
It wasn’t long before scouts and Cardinals’ executives realized the dominance Haren displayed in Tennessee, and after only eight starts in a Smokies uniform, Haren was promoted to Triple-A Memphis where he compiled a 2-1 record in eight starts with the team. Despite a 4.93 ERA in 45.2 innings of work with the Redbirds, Haren’s impressive numbers with the Smokies propelled him to a spot in the rotation with St. Louis in June of 2003.
Haren’s major league debut came against Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants as he pitched six innings and gave up two earned runs on seven hits. However, the 22-year-old was handed his first loss in the big leagues and went on to make 13 more starts that season as he finished 3-7 with a 5.08 ERA
The Cardinals organization, feeling that Haren needed more experience, sent him back to Triple-A Memphis to begin the 2004 campaign. Haren gained the skills he needed in what would be his last minor league season and went 11-4 with a 4.15 ERA in 21 starts for the Redbirds.
The 23-year-old righty was once again promoted to St. Louis in late 2004 and appeared in 14 games, starting five of those and going 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA. After playing a small role in the Cardinals’ postseason run to the World Series in 2004, Haren was included in a trade that would forever change his major league career.
With St. Louis feeling the need to add an established starter after being swept by the Boston Red Sox and Billy Beane looking to add another chapter to his Moneyball tactics, Haren was traded to Oakland as part of a trade package for A’s ace Mark Mulder.
“Certainly there’s a lot of the future involved in this,” Beane said at the time of the trade. “We have to be very patient with three positions, that being the three starting pitchers.”
Oakland displayed patience with Haren, as he became a key part of the rotation alongside Barry Zito for the next two seasons. The California native became a workhorse for Oakland as he made at least 33 starts and pitched over 215.0 innings from 2005 to 2007. Haren won 14 games in 2005 and 2006 when he helped the club reach the playoffs both seasons and earned his first All-Star appearance in 2007 as the American League starter before he went on to compile a 15-9 record with a 3.07 ERA. During his three seasons with Oakland, Haren went 43-34 with 3.64 ERA in 102 starts and 662.2 innings pitched.
Following the 2007 season, however, Haren was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for six players in return as Oakland looked to rebuild after a disappointing 76-86 record led to a third place finish in the AL West.
Haren teamed with 2006 NL Cy Yong winner Brandon Webb and continued to carry the load in 2008 as he earned his second All-Star appearance and went 16-8 with a 3.33 ERA in 33 starts and 216.0 innings pitched. The 215-pound-right-hander followed up in 2009 with a third consecutive All-Star selection and a 14-10 record with 3.14 ERA in 229.1 innings pitched.
But Haren scuffled to begin the 2010 season and was traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for pitcher Joe Saunders and three minor league players after the Diamondbacks deemed Haren’s salary to be too costly for the team moving forward. Haren was 7-8 with a 4.60 ERA in 21 starts before the trade and was due to make $12.75 million in 2011 and 2012.
“At this point, being on the West Coast has a lot of value to me, being near my family and going to a ballclub that is dedicated to winning,” Haren told ESPN Los Angeles after the trade. “I am really excited about going there and having a chance to win.”
The then-29-year-old finished off the 2010 season by going 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts.
Haren bounced back to form in 2011 as he made 34 starts in a career-high 238.1 innings pitched and went 16-10 with a 3.17 ERA. Yet Haren’s numbers dipped early on in 2012 and caused some to wonder whether the 31-year-old was battling injuries.
Indeed Haren was hurt, and for the first time in his 10-year career, Haren went on the 15-day disabled list, thus ending a streak that saw Haren go eight-plus seasons without missing a start.
“That’s probably the biggest reason I didn’t do this earlier,” Haren told the LA Times regarding his decision to go on the DL. “In eight or nine years, I’ve pitched through a lot of pain, and I pride myself in taking the ball every fifth day, regardless of how I feel.”
“The pain was manageable, but it was almost like my mind was telling me yes and my body was telling me no,” said Haren.
Haren was 6-8 with a 4.86 ERA prior to going on the DL, but bounced back to finish the season 12-13 with a 4.33 ERA in 176.2 innings pitched.
Despite a strong comeback during the second half of the season, the Angels declined Haren’s 2013 club option and granted him free agency after a proposed trade that would have sent Haren to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for closer Carlos Marmol fell through.
Video: Nationals Sign Dan Haren
Haren was not on the free agent market for long as the Washington Nationals signed Haren to a one-year, $13 million deal for the upcoming 2013 season, helping complete a rotation with the likes of Stephen Strasburg and 2012 NL Cy Young runner-up Gio Gonzalez.
“He’s one of the most accomplished pitchers in the past couple years,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We feel really good that he’s with the Washington Nationals. Once we expressed interest in him, he certainly focused in on us.”
But perhaps Dan Haren will one day focus in on his playing career and think back on his road to the major leagues. Chances are he’ll reminisce about his days as a Tennessee Smoky. And if there were a word he could use to describe his time in Sevierville, that word would most likely be “perfect.”
Nick Roark is a Broadcast & Media Associate for the Smokies Radio Network. You can follow him on Twitter here: @NickRoark4.