It's not often that a second-place team signing a second-tier starting pitcher has a first-rate domino effect on the rest of the hot-stove season. But in the case of Rich Harden and the Texas Rangers, that appears to be exactly the case.
Harden flew into Arlington last week poised to prove that one or two injury-riddled seasons do not a career make. He's ready to announce his career's resurgence at home in the AL West, and he's being paid the big bucks to do so.
One year, $6.5 million base salary, up to $2.5 million more in incentives if he can prove he's worth it. Then there's the option year in 2011, which he can earn by staying healthy. It's a big investment in a guy who's never had a 200-inning season in his life, and hasn't even hit 150 since 2004.
"It has been frustrating not to be able to do some things," Harden said last week at his introductory news conference. "In the past, it's bothered me. But I've learned to put it behind me, and I feel I have a good conditioning program to help me. There will always be questions, but I've used it to motivate me to work harder to have a bunch of healthy seasons."
Harden sounds determined to reach his full potential. So, too, do a lot of other guys at similar turning points in their careers.
With Harden locked into a fairly lucrative deal for next season, it's time to start looking at the rest of the starting pitchers of his ilk — Erik Bedard, Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer to name three — and how their futures can shake out from here. If Harden is worth $6.5 million, how much should a GM pay for another flamethrower with just one or two too many injuries to his name? There's no easy answer.
In Bedard's case, the former Seattle Mariner is now up for grabs on the open market, as the M's declined this month to offer him arbitration.
It's a logically sound decision for Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik — Bedard made almost $8 million last season, and it's commonplace for even the unreliable or injury-prone to get raises through arbitration. Rather than commit to keeping Bedard around for too much money, the M's decided to cut him loose and perhaps negotiate with him later for less. But now that Seattle has finished off a deal to land Cliff Lee from the Phillies, their demand for big-money starting pitching just took a big downturn.
Bedard will have to look elsewhere. And even in the heavy-hitting American League, where Bedard has pitched his whole career, he's got tons of suitors — the Orioles and Royals are two of the big ones, and you have to consider Boston a strong possibility if Theo Epstein pulls the trigger on a Clay Buchholz trade and ends up needing one extra arm.
But Bedard can forget about $8 million. With Harden setting the tone this winter, his paycheck is guaranteed to be smaller than that — but as long as he gets a chance to prove he can still pitch, he should consider himself happy.
As for Sheets and Duchscherer, they could both find themselves getting big offers from the same ballclub: the Yankees. The Yanks have money to spend, of course, and they could always use a live arm or two. An older, more experienced starter would be good for the Yankees. Two of them would be even better.
But at what price? Sheets is seeking $11 or $12 million, rumor has it, but there's not a chance in the world he's getting that. A $6 million deal sounds more reasonable. And Duchscherer made just under $4 million last season without throwing a single pitch. The hard-throwing righty, now 32 years old, was derailed first by elbow surgery and then clinical depression last season. If he comes back, it'll have to be for a discount. Try about $3 million.
All three of these pitchers are riddled with question marks. It's hard to determine the market value of a guy who can't stay healthy, can't throw consistently or can't finish out a season — yet. But there will always be plenty of GMs out there willing to spend to find out when these guys can turn their careers around.
Thanks to Harden, dollar amounts are starting to materialize. Over the next month, we'll see teams put their money where their mouth is.