Diamond-in-the-rough free agent: Rich Harden

Rich Harden's starter days may be over. Look for him to land a bullpen spot in 2012. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

We are getting down the the bottom of the beer here in terms of free agency. While some teams prefer to avoid the remnants, others will say screw it and drink. When trolling the market now, you have to be creative as a GM and find sources of value that others may overlook. If there is a potential to fill a current or potential need with a player available on the last day of January, you can pretty much name your price.

One guy I would be honed in on is former top prospect, and he of the “nine pitches for three outs club”, Mr. Rich Harden.

The reason teams haven’t given him the necessary attention is not due to performance but to injury concerns. If you recall at the deadline last year, the Red Sox were about to trade Lars Anderson to the Athletics for Harden to help them down the stretch. The Red Sox doctors concluded that his shoulder wouldn’t hold up over the rest of the season and instead grabbed Erik Bedard.

Harden did end up finishing the season with the Athletics, making 10 starts over the course of the final two months. While the W-L record (2-3) and ERA (5.57) over those starts don’t look too great, the fact that he made the starts, plus had a K/9 of 10+, tells us he still has stuff left in the tank.

Harden has always been able to strike people out. He has consistently sat in the 9-10 K/9 range throughout his career, minus a 7.41 K/9 in Texas in 2010. He is pretty much a two-pitch pitcher at this point, with a fastball sitting in the low 90s, and a change to compliment at about a 10 mph difference. He used to rely on a slider for outs but barely sprinkles it in now, possibly due to shoulder pain.

His right shoulder has been the main source of  grief for the 30-year-old over his career. He has missed 318 games due to this, (according to Baseball Prospectus) and during the offseason before 2010 baseball began, it was found that he has a tear in that shoulder; a tear that could be fixed with surgery, but was slight enough where physical therapy could strengthen it. Harden never had the surgery, due to pending free agency and faith in Western healing.

If you look at Harden’s usage over the past two seasons, he has been used primarily as a starter, with 33 out of his 35 appearances being starts. He’s averaged 5.21 IP/GS over that period, which is pretty low. I think everybody knows this guy needs to move to the pen. He is no longer in a position where he has a ton of leverage in the free-agent market, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. It’s time to open up to the possibility of jogging to the mound every other day. If you look at his numbers, and his injury history, you can tell that this guy can be more effective in intermittent blips. Keeping him in the pen could help that shoulder stay attached over the course of a season.

In an optimal situation, I would sign Harden under the premise that he is a 6/7 inning guy. He can bridge the gap for a starter who’s thrown too many pitches through five. If the occasion arises, he spot starts. You count on him for no more than 80-100 innings.

He was worth 0.7 WAR in 2011 according to Baseball Reference, so assuming similar production in 2012, he should be worth somewhere between $2-3 million dollars. Luckily for his future team, they won’t be on the hook for nearly as much. He made $1.5 million last year, and with the injury risk, diminishing returns due to age and current market factors, he’s due for a pay cut. On market factors, look at Carlos Pena; the guy added an extra win of worth when you compare his ’10 and ’11 seasons, yet he was forced to take a  $2 million dollar pay cut to re-sign with the Rays.

With the the salary that Harden would command, this is the low risk/high upside type move that a lot of general managers love to make. Look for Harden to come off the board soon, and for some team to be happily rewarded during 2012.

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