Playing Harden to Get

Rich Harden is effective when healthy, but that caveat is more relevant for him than it is for most others. Over nine major-league seasons, he has never thrown 200 innings in a single year. Since logging 189.2 frames in 2004, he hasn’t even thrown for more than 148 innings in a season — and he’s working on his second consecutive year with fewer than 100 innings to his stats line.  He can’t seem to stay healthy long enough to have an impact commensurate with his talent.

Regardless, Harden’s possibilities are tough to ignore. He misses bats at an elite rate for a starter and induces feeble contact when batters connect. He has a career .274 batting average on balls in play, significantly lower than the league average. He also ranks third among starters with at least 200 total innings since 2008 with a 10.1 K/9: only Brandon Morrow and Tim Lincecum have a higher rate. Over the same span, batters have whiffed at 13 percent of Harden’s offerings, by far the highest rate for a starting pitcher. Cole Hamels ranks second at 11.7 percent. He’s a starter with elite reliever numbers.

It’s easy to see why teams are always interested in him despite the checkered injury history, and why that interest persists even with a small sample of starts this year.

The Red Sox sought to bring him in at the trade deadline, and were ready to trade first base prospect Lars Anderson and a player to be named later in the deal. Complications arose after the Red Sox medical team reviewed Harden’s physical records. The situation was somewhat comical: after all, what did they expect to see? They eventually shifted their attention to Erik Bedard, but the interest in Harden has rekindled in recent weeks.

The Red Sox aren’t alone. The Yankees have scouted his recent starts, and other contenders or teams on the fringe could seek his services as well. Steve Adams, of MLB Trade Rumors, suggested the Diamondbacks, Tigers and Indians as possible landing spots. Over a full season, Harden is a bad bet to be relied upon, but over a month and a half he would cost substantially less in terms of what it would take to bring him in, and what it would take to recoup value should he end up on the disabled list.

He hit waivers last week, and then turned in his best start of the season, allowing just two hits over seven innings while striking out 11 Blue Jays batters. After the outing, Peter Gammons tweeted the money line from a conversation with a scout, who confirmed that Harden’s ‘stuff’ and arm slot looked better in that game than it had in years. Gammons then remarked that it’s a shame Harden didn’t get through waivers, the implication being that one or more teams submitted a claim.

Had he passed through waivers, the Athletics could have traded him to the highest bidder, which is important given his status as an unranked free agent. He isn’t going to attain even Type B status, so the Athletics won’t be compensated with any draft picks if he signs elsewhere after the season. He isn’t helping them much right now, with the team out of the race, so there isn’t any reason for the Athletics to hold onto him. Even if they intend on re-signing him next year, trading him now is the most logical course of action.

Though he has a great relationship with the Athletics, the team shouldn’t bank on his returning and should instead look to get something of value out of his services. Assuming that the team(s) claiming Harden are actually in the thick of the playoff race, then a legitimate interest exists, and the Athletics should still be able to bring in a desirable prospect. They don’t have much leverage with the waiver wire in full force, as the teams that could be coaxed into delivering a greater return are unlikely to be given the opportunity. Their leverage also takes a hit with his unranked status since the Athletics cannot compare actual return packages to the value of compensatory draft picks.

The Athletics need to take a long, hard look at the possibility of trading Harden now, as they did with the trade deadline looming. Even if he were to return as an Athletics pitcher in 2012, he can benefit the organization more by bringing back prospects than by making four September starts. Pulling him off of waivers because the claiming team given priority isn’t offering a return on par with what could have been had from the Yankees or Red Sox would be foolish. While this isn’t a defining moment for the organization, it shouldn’t be pushed off to the periphery and rendered less important.

Rich Harden should not finish the season in an Athletics uniform. There are numerous cons to retaining him and no real counteracting pros.

We hoped you liked reading Playing Harden to Get by Eric Seidman!

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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Matt Keough
Matt Keough

24 swinging strikes in his last start ?!?