Rich Harden Keeps Cubs Relievers in Business. Should He Join Them?

M. EccherCorrespondent IApril 18, 2009

CHICAGO - APRIL 15: Starting pitcher Rich Harden of the Chicago Cubs, wearing a #42 jersey during the Jackie Robinson Day game, delivers the ball against the Colorado Rockies on April 15, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Rich Harden has never been mistaken for a workhorse.

In 103 career starts, he's lasted a shade less than six innings per appearance. Even last year, when he stayed healthy enough to pitch for most of a full season, Harden averaged 5.92 frames on the mound in his 25 outings—the fewest among regular Cubs' starters.

That's fine for Joe Starter—the average MLB starter lasts 5.6 frames per turn—but meager for a pitcher of Harden's talent and pedigree.

Harden's game-by-game numbers further underscore his limits. The table below examines how frequently each of Chicago's starters pitched into or beyond the seventh inning, including Harden's starts in Oakland:

Harden's move to the National League didn't help him go deeper into games: He pitched into the seventh in four of his 12 starts as a Cub (33 percent).

The most maddening aspect of Harden's short stints on the mound is his habit of checking out early from strong outings. Fourteen times last season, he logged six or fewer innings last year in starts in which he allowed two or fewer runs.

In six of those starts, he sat down before the seventh inning despite having allowed one or no runs.

Control trouble and pitch counts conspired to cut his gems short: Harden issued 3.17 walks and struck out 6.53 batters per contest in the 17 starts in which he went six or fewer innings, burning through plenty of pitches to reach those tallies.

His injury history deterred his managers from extending him past the 100-pitch mark, and he topped that count just nine times despite multiple dominant outings.

His latest start showcased Harden at his best and worst all at once: Four straight strikeouts to start the game, followed by two walks and a meltdown, and capped off by three more strikeouts before exiting after three.

His line on the day: Eight K's, four walks, five hits and four earned runs in three innings of work.

So on one hand, Harden dominates in short bouts, strikes out more than a batter an inning—1.33 per frame in his time in NL—and has held opposing batters to a .216 batting average, .300 on-base percentage and .316 slugging clip over the course of his career.

On the other, he profiles as a bullpen-killer who needs three-plus innings of relief behind him more often than not, and a constant risk to spend time on the disabled list if he's overused.

For all his brilliance, Harden can't seem to avoid burning out his relievers and himself.

Which is why he should consider joining them.

Conventional wisdom says that talented pitchers are more valuable in the rotation than out of the 'pen. After all, 150 stellar innings keeps more runs off the board than 60 or 70 strong frames.

But Harden has been hard-pressed to produce anything resembling a full compliment of starts to date, and after six-plus seasons in the big leagues, it's unclear that he ever will.

His value as a starter is also diminished by the regularity of his early exits. Since his first major injury in 2005, he's gone six or fewer innings in 70 percent of his starts.

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That means the Cubs aren't just getting Harden's handiwork in his starts—even when he's sharp, they're getting a tag team of Harden plus an inning or two of Aaron Heilman, Neal Cotts or another middle-of-the-'pen replacement.

It's a bizarre take on Cinderella's dilemma: A front-line starter transforms into a humdrum middle reliever as soon as the pitch count strikes the century mark.

Plug Harden into the eighth inning, however (sorry, Kevin Gregg, but Carlos Marmol has gotten the last two calls to close, and as far as set-up men go, we're just not that into you), and you've got the front end of a two-headed door-slamming relieving machine.

In an era in which pitching deep enough into a game to qualify for a win constitutes a marathon, building a bullpen around multiple shutdown relievers is all the rage. Killer late-inning combinations were key features of deep postseason runs by the '06 Tigers (Joel Zumaya-Todd Jones), '07 Red Sox (Hideki Okajima-Jonathan Papelbon) and '08 Phillies (Ryan Madson-Chad Durbin-Brad Lidge).

The Mets upped the ante this winter, bringing in two bona fide closers in J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez to carry their leads home.

And as Kerry Wood can attest, there's plenty of precedent for frail flame-throwers to find new niches at the back of the Chicago bullpen.

Who replaces Harden in the rotation? Preferably Jake Peavy, but anyone whose arm isn't in danger of falling off after five innings is a good investment in the long run. Jeff Samardzija was a rotation candidate in spring training, and is still waiting for his shot.

The move might cost the Cubs a handful of regular-season wins as they search for another starter, but has the potential to turn key games—playoff contests, perhaps—into seven-inning affairs.

Harden, meanwhile, gets the chance to extend his career, and can go to work without a pitch clicker looming over every inning he throws.

If he transitions successfully, teams that might have been uneasy paying him eight figures to start games will have no qualms offering him that much to finish them.

And if his health is going to force him into a relieving role eventually, he'll be better served making the move on his and the Cubs' own terms, rather than waiting for the next breakdown to strike.

Harden's shaky durability puts sharp limits on his spectacular talent. It's time for the Cubs to consider moving him to the bullpen and taking him off the leash.


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