He seems to have almost as many stints on the disabled list as he does wins, but there’s no question that when Victoria, B.C. native Rich Harden is healthy, his stuff is electrifying.
Returning from yet another injury in September, Harden was dispatched to the bullpen by the Texas Rangers, where he would make two appearances. At that time, Harden told The National Post’s Jeremy Sandler that he preferred to remain a starting pitcher.
But with Harden’s fragility I can’t help but think that the Rangers were onto something. For a few weeks, I’ve been championing the idea that the Blue Jays should offer Harden a short, incentive-laden contract and try to convert him into a closer. It’s a concept that worked with the similarly injury-prone Kerry Wood.
When injury-free, Harden is a big-time strikeout pitcher. In 2008, he fanned 181 batters in 148 innings. In 2009, he whiffed 171 hitters in 141 innings. There’s no question he has the “stuff” to be a dominant reliever.
That said, the overpowering Canuck, who will turn 29 on Tuesday, does walk a lot of batters, and in 2010, he averaged more pitches per inning than any other American League hurler. Both major concerns for someone you’re thinking of transforming into a closer.
Questions have also been raised about Harden’s mental toughness. Could he have gutted out some of the injuries that sidelined him? The Rangers’ decision to release Harden during the post-season was also odd. Sure, Harden was left off the post-season roster, but even if you’re not playing, wouldn’t you want to stick around and cheer on the players you gutted it out with all season?
But Harden’s arsenal is simply too good to ignore. The Victoria native has never allowed more hits than innings pitched in any of his eight big league campaigns, and he has compiled a 55-34 record with a tidy 3.63 ERA over that span.
But is converting this injury-prone Canuck into a closer a good idea?
I’ve had the good fortune of watching several big league games with Tom Valcke, a longtime big league scout and current president of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. He is the best talent evaluator I know. I asked him what he thought about turning Harden into a closer.
“Having seen Harden live three times, and following him very closely on television when possible, I love his stuff,” said Valcke. “Coincidentally, or perhaps not, every time I see him he is lights out the first few innings – his command has been so dominating that it has felt like the moons were aligned and we were going to see a no-hitter . . . So, to answer your question, I love Harden in a closer role, and he has the ability to be a two-inning closer. Once through a line-up? They won’t touch him. He has the body, the arm, the delivery and the mechanics. I’m quite sure he has the mindset. He seems to have to ability to focus in any situation.”
But Valcke points out that not all moundsmen can pitch in back-to-back games.
“The question is whether or not his arm is the type that can come back the next day for another save situation? He might be a guy who needs the four-day routine (all legs the day after pitching, long toss, bullpen and a bit of BP on day two, back to the leg work on day three),” said Valcke. “It would be interesting, and I think, if he is the type to be able to come back tomorrow, that he could be a front-line closer.”
With Harden’s former A’s pitching coach Curt Young now in the fold, the Red Sox are rumored to be the frontrunners for Harden this off-season. The Seattle Mariners – the closest team to Harden when he was growing up – also made a spirited effort to ink Harden in 2009. But the Jays are also in dire need of bullpen help. If they can’t sign Toronto native Jesse Crain, the Jays should consider Harden. Is it a risky signing? Yes, but having Harden close games couldn’t be any more nerve-racking than handing the ball to Kevin Gregg in the ninth.