Harden’s back to toy with my emotions


So here we are on the eve of Rich Harden‘s long-awaited season debut with the A’s which can only mean one thing: It’s time for my heart and mind to square off over what to expect from the sometimes brilliant but always brittle pitcher.  Getting Harden, Brandon McCarthy and Tyson Ross off the disabled list at around the same time should be a real shot in the arm for the A’s even though what they really need is hitting.

Can anyone say, “Free Chris Carter?”  But that’s another wildly frustrating subject entirely so I’ll get back to Harden.

As Harden prepares to take the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night my silly little heart tells me it’s time to get excited because if he’s healthy the A’s are getting one of baseball’s best pitchers as they make a desperate push to stay in the playoff picture heading into the All-Star Break.

Of course, my head tells me that I’m crazy and the A’s will be lucky to even get 5 good innings out of Harden because I’ve seen it firsthand.  Several years ago I went to a game where Harden was making his first start off the DL and he barely made it through a couple of innings against the Twins before promptly landing right back on the DL.  Home sweet home for the man blessed with out-of-this-world talent but cursed with an always-in-the-trainer’s-room body.

Harden has only made as many as 30 starts once in his career and that was way back in 2004.  The closest he’s ever come to pitching 200 innings was the same year when he miraculously managed to work 189.2 innings.  Not exactly an iron man and exactly the reason why my head says there’s nothing to see here.

But my heart ignores all that and gets caught up in the possibility that Harden can recapture some of the magic he had in 2008 and 2009 when he was finally healthy for a decent stretch of time.  The same guy who had become the Eric Chavez of the pitching staff while he was in Oakland made 25 starts in 2008 and 26 in 2009, striking out 352 hitters in 289 innings.  If the A’s get lucky and handle Harden with kid gloves maybe they can get that kind of production out of him.

Unfortunately, Harden put up most of those outstanding numbers with the Cubs after the A’s traded him during the 2008 season.  Oakland was shifting into rebuilding mode back then and decided to sell high on Harden ASAP rather than wait a little longer and risk another injury and no return on their investment at the trade deadline.  What they got in return from the Cubs for Harden and Chad Gaudin was Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher and Josh Donaldson.

Donaldson is still in the system toiling away in Sacramento, patiently waiting for Kurt Suzuki or Landon Powell to strain an oblique or a trade to another team.  If you’re curious, here’s what became of the other guys:

* Murton was sent to the Rockies for Corey Wimberly who was sent to the Pirates for Ryan Kelly who was sent to the Rangers for Guillermo Moscoso which isn’t working out too bad at the moment.

* Patterson was sent to the Red Sox for Fabian Williamson.  Williamson is 22 and pitching in obscurity for the A’s in Midland.  But his first name is Fabian which is kind of cool so he has that going for him.

* Gallagher was sent to the Padres as the player to be named later in the trade for Scott Hairston who was eventually sent back to the Pads for Kevin Kouzmanoff and Eric Sogard which is awesome if you’re a currently a Sacramento River Cats fan.

So in the end the A’s traded Harden, got him back as a free agent last winter and they still have Donaldson, Moscoso, Kouzmanoff, Sogard and a dude named Fabian to show for it.  They even brought Gaudin back into the fold for 12 games in 2010.  A trade that looked OK but not great in 2008 still looks OK but not great in 2011.  It’s not as impressive as trading a paper clip for a house but it’s not too bad.  Way to go Billy Beane.

Maybe there’s a chance that my heart and mind can strike a compromise on what to expect out of Harden this season now that he’s finally ready to take the field.  Ditch the emotional investment in his amazing outings when he’s in one piece because those moments are rare.  Instead I’ll cross my fingers that the A’s can nurse him along, only asking for about 5 good innings every time out with someone like Moscoso riding along in the bullpen to bridge the gap to Andrew Bailey and Co.  Throw in a couple of skipped turns in the rotation as days off permit and strict instructions to just ride his fastball and changeup as far as it’ll take him and you just might have the recipe for success with Harden.

At a bare minimum you might have a trade chip at the deadline.  When you’re in last place, 9 games under .500 and 7 games out of first you don’t have anything to lose by trying to catch lightning in a bottle with Harden.  I don’t know if it’ll work but it’s worth a try.

The only thing I know for sure is that I better crank out this irrationally optimistic Harden post while I have the chance because he’s probably injuring himself as I write this up.