December 26, 2012
Rich Harden was once among the best young pitchers in baseball, debuting with the A's as a 21-year-old and throwing 360 innings with a 3.60 ERA and .232 opponents' batting average through age 23. He missed lots of bats with a mid-90s fastball, hard slider, and devastating splitter, and many people viewed Harden as having the most upside on Oakland staffs that included Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Dan Haren.
And then the injuries hit. Harden was sidelined by everything from back spasms and hip strains to oblique pulls and finger blisters, but his first big injury was a sprained elbow ligament and most of his career has been spent trying to pitch with major shoulder problems. He threw 190 innings as a 22-year-old in 2004, but hasn't reached 150 innings in a season since and failed to throw 100 innings in five of the past seven seasons.
That includes 2012, when Harden missed the entire season following January shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Last month Harden announced plans to make a comeback and Friday he agreed to a minor-league contract with the Twins, getting an invitation to spring training but not a 40-man roster spot. At age 31 he's an intriguing flier to take and the complete lack of risk makes it a worthwhile pickup for the Twins, but expectations should be held in check.
For many years Harden was somehow able to maintain overpowering raw stuff and strong results despite the never-ending injuries, but that has long since ceased being true. He's basically lost one mile per hour on his fastball every two years, going from 94 mph in 2004/2005 to 91 mph in 2010/2011, and his slider lost similar velocity. And left with diminished raw stuff, Harden posted a 5.36 ERA with 93 walks and 35 homers allowed in 175 innings between 2010 and 2011.
Last winter Harden indicated that he'd been pitching through significant shoulder pain for years in an effort to skip surgery, but finally decided he couldn't continue to sacrifice his velocity just to avoid going under the knife. Because of that there's some hope his raw stuff will return, at least somewhat, and it's worth noting that even while struggling overall in 2010 and 2011 he did manage 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings while starting 33 games in the AL.
In fact, during that two-year stretch in which opponents hit .261 with a .476 slugging percentage off Harden he ranked 15th in strikeout rate and 22nd in swings missed among the 159 starters with at least 150 innings. He was done in by horrible control and way too many homers, but if given another mile or two per hour to work with it's not inconceivable to think Harden could cut down on some of the mistakes while keeping the missed bats and be effective again.
Of course, that would involve successfully coming back from major shoulder surgery and then remaining healthy, the former of which is far from a sure thing and the latter of which has been a career-long struggle. I've often wondered why teams have never tried to keep Harden healthy by shifting him to the bullpen, where he could air it out for 15-20 pitches without worrying about in-game fatigue, and it sounds like the Twins are open-minded to a potential relief role.
Last winter the Twins took a similar flier on another oft-injured righty, Joel Zumaya, who blew out his elbow in his first spring training game. Harden's injury history isn't quite as debilitatingly gruesome, but all the same caveats apply. There's a strong chance Harden will never pitch for the Twins, but there's also some chance he'll be a useful mid-rotation starter or setup man--even temporarily--and that's certainly worth a no-risk look.
For a lot more about the Harden signing, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.
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