By Liam McGuire (@LiamRMcGuire)
Can Rich Harden contribute in 2013?
The Victoria B.C. native hopes to join fellow Canadians Justin Morneau and Scott Diamond on the Minnesota Twins major league roster, after the former Oakland Athletics pitcher signed a minor league contract with the team Dec. 21.
The big question is whether the former strikeout-machine can stay healthy over a full season? The Central Arizona College alumnus didn’t pitch a single inning in professional baseball in 2012 after undergoing rotator cuff surgery.
The last time Harden pitched more than 100 innings was in 2009 when he worked 141 innings for the Chicago Cubs. Over past two seasons Harden has made 35 appearances, including 33 starts, between the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s.
Aside from his sophomore season with the A’s in 2004, Harden has not pitched a full season in his career. He joins a long list of new starting pitchers for the Twins that will challenge for a rotation spot in 2013.
Earlier this winter, the Twins acquired starter Vance Worley in a trade with Philadelphia for Ben Revere; they signed Kevin Correia to a two-year $10 million dollar deal and former Mets righty and first-round pick Mike Pelfrey to a one-year $4 million dollar pact.
Guelph ON native Diamond, who will likely slot in as the No. 1 starter in the Twins rotation, is the only sure thing for the Twins rotation aside from the new acquisitions. In 2012, the Twins ranked dead last in the American League in ERA despite Diamond’s 3.54 mark and his AL best 1.6 walks per nine innings.
Diamond recently underwent minor elbow surgery and will be ready for opening day according to the Twins, but you can scratch him off Team Canada for World Baseball Classic. Harden is also considering pitching in the WBC, but he has to look after his full-time employment with the Twins.
Challenging Harden for the fifth spot in the rotation is a group of pitchers that finished the season in the Twins rotation. Former innings-eater and Twins mainstay, Nick Blackburn, had a disastrous 2012 in which where he went 4-9 with an ERA over seven. Other candidates include 2012 rookies Cole De Vries and Liam Hendricks along with Samuel Deduno and Esmerling Vasquez who collectively combined to make 53 starts for the Twins in 2012.
There is chatter of converting Harden to a reliever, which makes sense as it would limit his innings and could lead to him staying off the DL.
Harden only has 10 career appearances as a reliever in his MLB career.
Former Atlanta Brave John Smoltz is the most recent successful example of a starting pitcher moving into a closer’s role, especially after injury. Smoltz had 55 in 2002, two years after missing an entire season due to Tommy John surgery.
After multiple injuries, including a partially torn rotator cuff, former Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood had a successful career after transitioning from a starter to a reliever.
Harden, who had shown flashes of being an ace early in his career, is now 31-years-old and on his fourth team in five years. Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane once predicted Harden would win a Cy Young award.
It is possible that if he doesn’t show those same flashes of talent, no matter how briefly with the Twins, Harden’s career may soon be over.
The contract is a low-risk, high reward situation for Minnesota. If he doesn’t make the team, no money or love is lost, however if he can get back to at least half the pitcher he used to be, striking out well over a batter per inning, either as a starting pitcher or a reliever, then the Twins may have found one of the biggest bargains on the market.