Moves by Texas Rangers at Winter Meetings Has Our Baseball Weenie Harden-ing

Categories: Sports

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Meet the Rangers' new ace: Rich Harden
Despite the financial restraints stemming from the team's unresolved ownership situation, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels skillfully inked the most dominant free-agent starter at this week's Winter Meetings in Indianapolis without adding payroll. By dealing starting pitcher Kevin Millwood to the Baltimore Orioles for relievers Chris Ray and Benjamin Snyder, Daniels freed up enough dough to sign former Oakland A's and Chicago Cubs right-hander Rich Harden to a one-year contract with a mutual option for 2011.

Harden's deal was finalized after the results of his physical, which took place Thursday in Arlington. Daniels is also reportedly close to a trade with the Boston Red Sox for Mike Lowell, in which the Rangers would send catching prospect Max Ramirez and pay approximately $3 million of Lowell's $12 million contract for 2010, the final year of the three-year, $37.5 million deal he signed in November 2007.

Daniels could have avoided dealing Millwood as he had a clause in his contract stipulating that he pitch in 180 innings this season to trigger his $12 million salary in '10, or else he'd become a free agent. After Millwood surrendered five earned runs at home against the Seattle Mariners on September 12 for the fourth time in his last five starts, he sat at 175 2/3 innings pitched, and chatter began about possibly shutting him down for the season and avoiding his costly contract obligation for '10.

Even though it would appear to have been prudent to do so given Daniels' preference to rid the team of Millwood and his contract this offseason, the Rangers were 79-61 at the time and battling for a playoff spot. The team eventually fell apart, losing 14 of its final 22 games to finish the season, but Millwood won three of those games -- two 7-inning performances followed by a 9-inning, 10-strikeout game in his final start of the season -- so Daniels shouldn't be second guessed for sticking with Millwood down the stretch.

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In the words of Governor Rick Perry: "Adios, Mofo."
Although he finished the year as the team's second best starter, posting his best ERA (3.67) since 2005 and the fourth lowest in his career, Millwood set a career high with 71 walks and a career low with 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests why Daniels had plans on upgrading, especially since Millwood doesn't fit into the Rangers' long-term plans.

In Rich Harden, Daniels definitely found an upgrade. If Harden, who turned 28 on November 30, met the criteria (100 career decisions and 1,000 innings pitched), he'd place sixth on the all-time list of strikeouts per nine innings at 9.35, pushing Sandy Koufax to seventh. You read that right. Sandy freggin' Koufax. (Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Trevor Hoffman are the top five.)

When he's healthy, which we'll get into shortly, Harden's one of the most dominating right-handers out there, featuring a 90-94 mph fastball with life that can touch 96, a nasty changeup with splitter-like action and a hard curveball that looks like a slider. He has a 50-29 career record, 3.39 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 783 strikeouts in 753 2/3 innings in seven seasons with the A's and Cubs.

Although Harden's stats were mediocre this season with Chicago (9-9 record, 4.09 ERA and 1.34 WHIP), he was outstanding in 2008, posting a 10-2 record in 25 combined starts with a 2.07 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 181 strikeouts in 148 innings while splitting time with both Chicago and Oakland. He's capable of being the ace that Millwood was signed to be but never turned out to be. Yet one major obstacle stands in Harden's way: staying healthy.

There is no starter on the free-agent market that matches Harden in terms of raw talent, but Texas snagged him at a bargain rate because of his lengthy history in the trainer's room. Harden has managed only one season with more than 30 starts (2004) because of numerous injuries to his back and shoulders.

Here's what we found fishing around for his injury history: a strained left oblique muscle in May 2005, a strained back muscle in September '05, surgery to reattach the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in October '05, a torn back muscle in May '06, a sprained ligament in his elbow in June '06, shoulder tightness throughout the summer of '07, biceps tendonitis in September '07, a strained back muscle in April '08, dead arm in July '08, arm discomfort at the end of '08, a small tear in his shoulder joint prior to Spring Training in '09, a mid-back strain in May '09 and arm fatigue that ended his '09 season.

That's some pretty scary shit. You get the feeling he could pop his shoulder or strain his back opening a bag of sunflower seeds, which is why he signed for $6.5 million plus an incentive package that could add another $2.5 million to the deal -- a paltry deal for someone of his skill set. There's also an $11 million mutual option for 2011, and if either or side balks at accepting it, there's a $1 million buyout.

It's a risk no doubt, but a calculated one. Millwood had four years to prove he could anchor this staff, and he failed. Daniels, again, having to work with the payroll he has, essentially swapped out Millwood for Harden, a younger player with tremendous upside. If he can stay healthy, he could easily give the Rangers a true ace to help contend in a winnable AL West. If he doesn't, it was only a one-year commitment.

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