The fifth starter competition is now officially without its original favorite.
Over the weekend manager Bob Geren declared Rich Harden officially out of the competition, stating that there was not enough time left in spring training for him to compete with other starters Brandon McCarthy, Josh Outman, Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer.
"Yeah, there is not time for that," Geren said regarding Harden continuing to compete for the fifth starter spot.
Harden had hoped to return to the mound and resume his throwing program on Tuesday, March 15 in hopes of earning a spot in the A's bullpen and continuing to stretch himself out should the need arise for him to return to the rotation during the season.
Those plans took a serious detour on Monday, as he experienced a setback in his rehab from a strained lat muscle. Oakland has now shut Harden down indefinitely and sent the right-handed pitcher to a team doctor for further evaluation.
Now the question must be asked: Will Rich Harden even make the roster?
The most likely scenario is that Harden will find himself on the 15-day disabled list to start the season and will remain at extended spring training until the A's are confident that he has put this most recent setback behind him and built enough arm strength to effectively pitch out of the bullpen.
Harden has been to the disabled list nine times in his career, six of those as a member of the Athletics.
The A's and Harden had both hoped that a return to Oakland to work with pitching coach Ron Romanick, who helped tutor Harden since the A's drafted him in the 17th round of the 2000 draft, would help him resurrect his once promising career. Health has never been on Rich's side, though, and he seems destined for a 10th trip to the disabled list to start the season.
Had Harden been able to put together a solid and healthy spring, he likely would have emerged the winner of the A's fifth starter competition or an effective middle reliever at the very least.
When Rich has managed to stay on the field, he has been one of the league's dominant presences on the mound. Throughout his career Harden has compiled a 55-34 record, a 3.63 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 ratio and a 4.2 BB/9 ratio. Harden had hoped to build on those numbers this season in his return to his first major-league team.
The Athletics have a deep rotation and equally deep bullpen, however. While this could work as an advantage to Rich, as he won't be rushed back from injury too soon, it also hurts his chances of making the Athletics roster when/if he is healthy this season.
There will always be a spot on a major-league roster for a pitcher of Harden's caliber when he is healthy, but the Athletics may not be the roster that Harden finds himself calling home.
Brandon McCarthy now appears to be the front runner for the final rotation spot, with Tyson Ross right on his heels. The losers will likely find themselves in the Athletics bullpen. Already stocked with Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow, Jerry Blevins, Brad Ziegler and Andrew Bailey, however, the bullpen could be tough to crack given questions about Harden's durability.
If Oakland decides to keep Harden at extended spring training or even assign him to Triple-A Sacramento on a rehab assignment following the conclusion of the Cactus League, it will still need to make a roster decision as to where Harden will fit in 2011.
It is conceivable that he could put together a few solid starts for Sacramento and jump into the A's rotation in the event of an injury, but Oakland cannot hide Harden away in the minors all season. His fate will wind up being tied to the health of the A's other starters and relievers. Ironic, isn't it?
The signing of Harden to a one-year, $1.5 million contract was considered by many to be a low-risk, high-reward type of signing. While the notion of Harden being reunited with the Oakland A's was intriguing leading up to the start of spring, that excitement was short-lived, as Harden was hurt on the first day of pitcher workouts in Phoenix.
The Athletics may find themselves eating his salary and releasing Harden back out to the free-agent market for another team willing to take a chance that he will put together a healthy season once he rebounds from this most recent injury.
As I just wrote earlier, there will always be a spot for a healthy Rich Harden on a major-league roster, but after this most recent setback, I am not convinced that he will find that spot on the Oakland roster in 2011.