Billy-Ball Daily: 2008-7-9

Billy-Ball Daily
Bill Chuck (Billy-Ball his own self)

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By Baseball Newstalgist, Bill Chuck

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The only spin here is on my screwball

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Top of the 1st
Sometimes the trading deadline approaches and we are met with nothing but the hot steamy air of summer. Here it is July 9th and we’ve now seen two blockbusters larger than “Hancock” and “Get Smart” combined.

One day after the Milwaukee Brewers landed CC Sabathia, the Chicago Cubs acquired talented, but oft-injured right-handed starter Rich Harden in a six-player deal with the Oakland Athletics. The Cubs also added Chad Gaudin, 25, who can start or relieve. The Cubs can now match Milwaukee’s one-two combination of Sabathia and Ben Sheets with All-Star Carlos Zambrano and Harden, a 26-year-old power pitcher.

The key to this deal is the oft-used phrase “oft-injured” oft-misused by writers who are oft-off themselves. But in this case the phrase has value. Harden spent two stints on the DL last year with shoulder problems, two in 2006 with back and elbow problems and one in 2005 with a strained oblique muscle. This season he’s 5-1 in just 13 starts because he started the year on the disabled list with a lingering shoulder strain.

Harden, who averages over one strikeout an inning and has a 2.34 ERA, has been on the DL 326 days from 2005-07 and has pitched only 277 1/3 innings over the past four seasons. He hasn’t started more than 20 games in a season since 2004. He has thrown more than 130 big league innings just once in his career. He has thrown 77 innings this season, more major league innings than he did in the past two seasons combined. Dave van Dyck in this morning’s Chicago Tribune in his lead sentence writes, “Harden comes with a “fragile” sticker attached to his baggage,” and in his next sentence describes Harden as “one of baseball’s biggest “ifs.””

Harden, eligible to be a free agent after the 2009 season, is scheduled to make $4.75 million this season, although the Cubs can opt out of his contract this winter, is a gamble. “It’s no secret that when he’s [pitching], he’s about as good as it gets,” Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. “You can hear that from any player in the American League. … Obviously, there’s some risk. He never has had a surgery. We did extensive work with their doctors. … There’s certainly some risk, but a very, very high reward.” Such as the knowledge that since May 11, the day Harden came off the disabled list, he’s tied for the major league lead in strikeouts, with 77, with CC Sabathia.

But his health will remain as one of the variables that will make the NL Central race a crap shoot until season’s end. Rick Morrissey of the Tribune writes, “If you’re a Cubs fan, you better have your fingers crossed right now.” Then after he lists Harden’s injury history he adds, “That’s not the greatest history, and history generally isn’t the Cubs’ friend. But let’s give hope a chance, with the thought that the unofficial 2008 slogan “It’s Gonna Happen” doesn’t necessarily apply to recurring shoulder strains.”

Later in the column, Morrissey astutely adds, “The Cubs-Brewers showdown could end up being a battle of attrition. Milwaukee’s other star pitcher, Ben Sheets, has a history of injuries that makes Harden’s look like amateur hour. Or Sabathia finally could eat himself into oblivion. Who knows?”

We do know that while the immediate upside seems to be all in the Cubs favor, I would never feel totally comfortable when dealing with the A’s. Rob Neyer of has his tongue only partially in his cheek when he writes that with this trade, the master GM Billy Beane is “just retooling for the stretch run.”

But Jay Marriotti of the Chicago Sun Times asks the question that so many others also wonder about, “what should concern Cubdom is that A’s GM Billy Beane cut the deal so quickly. What might Beane know about Harden that Hendry doesn’t?” Marriotti adds, “If the trade deadline is three weeks away, why wouldn’t Beane wait and pit suitors against each other so he could squeeze the best trade for himself? Why was he so quick to take a deal that includes one keeper (promising pitcher Sean Gallagher), two mystery men (Matt Murton and Eric Patterson) and a catching prospect?

Is it because Beane knows the warning signs? Harden has survived only five innings in each of his last two starts, with reports of reduced velocity. He didn’t look like a curse-killer Sunday at U.S. Cellular Field, where he walked four and threw 95 pitches in a loss to the Sox. Might Beane be cutting his losses with perfect timing, sensing another DL trip ahead?”

The A’s are very much still a part of the AL races. Oakland is just five games behind the first-place Los Angeles Angels in the AL West and 3