Should the Yankees look at Rich Harden as back-of-the-rotation fodder?

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

On Tuesday Mike took a look at the A’s starters that are still under contract that could theoretically be acquired via trade. Today I wanted to look at a righty who pitched for the A’s last season that could be acquired for just money: free agent Rich Harden.

Before we dive too deeply into this, note that a potential Yankee acquisition of Harden almost certainly wouldn’t occur until January, comes with the assumption that they don’t end up signing either Yu Darvish or C.J. Wilson, and that the team would likely be looking at the oft-injured Harden as the 2012 version of either Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon.

Anyway, it wasn’t too long ago that Harden was one of the best pitchers on the planet. Starting with his inaugural season through the end of 2009, Harden compiled the 9th-best ERA (3.39) in all of MLB among pitchers with 750-plus innings. Among that same group he posted the top K/9 in all of baseball (9.35) and 15th-best FIP (3.58).

Unfortunately, while the soon-to-be 31-year-old Harden has frequently been brilliant, he has of course also frequently been injured. He’s never thrown more than 200 innings in a season, and has only even broken the 150-inning plateau once, back in 2004 (a career-high 189.2 innings and 31 starts). Harden’s litany of professional injuries began in 2005, as he lost more than a month to an oblique strain, and suffered a shoulder injury later in the year. The 2006 and 2007 seasons were almost entirely lost to injury, as he made a combined 13 starts in between recovering from a series of back, elbow and shoulder problems.

Harden got semi-back on track in 2008, turning in a superb 13 starts for the Athletics (2.34 ERA/2.83 FIP) before  being traded to the Cubs and compiling an even better 12 starts for Chicago (1.70 ERA/3.08 FIP) in the stretch run, though he still missed time with another right shoulder injury. The Cubs picked up Harden’s option for 2009, but still another back injury and right arm injury limited his effectiveness, and he turned in the worst full season of his career.

The Rangers ended up signing Harden in December 2009 to what seemed to be an aggressive one-year, $7.5 million deal. I was beating the drum pretty hard for Ben Sheets at the time — whose career rather eerily mirrors Harden’s — as both pitchers looked to be solid high-risk, high-reward signings. Harden wound up being terrible for Texas in yet another injury-plagued year, and was released after the season.

The A’s signed him to a one-year deal last winter, and though he (surprise, surprise) started the year on the DL with yet another shoulder injury, he threw fairly well over his first nine starts of the season, tossing to a 3.91 ERA and a crazy 10.2 K/9, showing that he still had his famous strikeout stuff despite a significant decline in velocity from his peak fastball. Unfortunately for Harden, the Yankees more or less broke him during the three-grand slam game, and he finished the season tossing to a 7.28 ERA over his final six starts.

So what does the enigmatic Harden have to offer potential suitors? I initially created a table breaking down his repertoire and results against righties and lefties over the last few seasons, courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com, but rather than post that monstrosity here I’ll just summarize.

Here’s the good news: all four of Harden’s pitches — the low-90s four-seamer, low-80s slider, low-80s changeup and low-80s splitter, were above-average Whiff% pitches against hitters from both sides of the plate. The changeup in particular wreaked havoc on righties, racking up a 30.8% whiff rate (compared to 12.6% league average). As a point of comparison, James Shields’s Whiff% with the change against righties was 20.5%. Now, Shields of course deployed the changeup quite a bit more frequently than Harden, but it’s still a point in Harden’s favor. Harden’s change has also been a valuable weapon against lefties, with a 20.5% Whiff%.

Here’s the not-so-good news (batted ball data from JoeLefkowitz.com):

While the slider was a strong swing-and-miss offering against righties, they also punished his apparently fairly frequent mistakes, as 2.6% of his sliders left the yard. In fact, Harden gave up a career-high 1.85 home runs per nine in 2011. The remainder of his batted-ball profile is a bit scary as well, with a 22.8% LD% that would’ve put him among the highest in baseball had he enough innings to qualify (though CC Sabathia finished in the top 10, so it’s not as if that’s some automatic death knell), while his GB% would have been among the lowest in the league.

Still, Harden finished the season with a 9.91 K/9, which is bound to draw interest from a number of different parties, even with his myriad injury issues. Even though he hasn’t been an elite pitcher since 2008, I would be surprised if Harden was still on the market by the time the Yankees would theoretically come calling.

That said, if he is still hanging around come January, and the Yankees still have an opening in the rotation, if I’m the Yanks I would absolutely take a flier on Harden, who they were looking at as a potential waiver-wire acquisition in August, and who probably isn’t in line for all that much more than the $1.5 million he picked up with the A’s last season.

Prospect Profile: George Kontos

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

George Kontos | RHP

Background
A Chicago-area kid from Lincolnwood, Illinois, Kontos was a three-sport star at Niles West High School. He played varsity baseball and golf for three years, and also lettered in basketball. Kontos pitched to a 1.02 ERA and hit .480 as a senior, earning him Central Suburban Player of the Year, Team MVP, and First-Team Illinois Coaches Association honors. He was also named the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state. Despite his success, Kontos was not considered much of a pro prospect at the time, so he went undrafted out of high school in 2003 and followed through on his commitment to Northwestern.

[Read more…]

Cashman’s Offseason Blueprint Revealed

RIVER AVENUE BLUES EXCLUSIVE!

Late last night we acquired copies of New York Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman‘s private and confidential 2011-’12 offseason plan. The content of these highly-sensitive documents have never made public before now. Many Bothans died to bring us this information.

(click images to enlarge)

As you can plainly see, Cashman has a solid plan in place, and if he’s successful in its execution, the Yankees seem likely to win at least 145 games in 2012. In fairness, I don’t give this blueprint better than a 25% chance of happening, but if confirmation was ever needed on just how wily Cashman is, mission accomplished. He can plan my castle onslaught any day.

Oh, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, every 10th follower wins an iPad!

When the Babe was a postseason failure

As the Yankees opened up their new stadium in 1923, all eyes were on the Babe.

For Babe Ruth, 1922 was decidedly not a banner year. Despite hitting .315 with a .434 on-base percentage and an AL-leading .672 slugging, the Babe had a down year. With an OPS+ of 182, it was, in fact, the only year between 1919 and 1924 that Ruth’s mark dipped below 219. To make matters worse, Ruth matched that down year with an injury-plagued season and a suspension from Commissioner Kennsaw Mountain Landis due to an off-season barnstorming trip that wasn’t approved by Major League Baseball. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

For his Yankees, 1922 was supposed to be a year of redemption. After losing to the Giants in the 1921 World Series, the 1922 Yanks went 94-60 as they beat out the St. Louis Browns to reach the World Series. For Ruth, the Fall Classic was a disaster. The Giants swept the Yankees, and the high-paid Ruth was the goat. He went just 2 for 17 with one extra-base hit and one run batted in. The press coverage after the world’s series, as it was then called, was brutal.

On October 10, 1922, two days after the end of the Series, The Times eviscerated Ruth:

Opinion was almost unanimous that Ruth has reached the lowest ebb of his career. His failing box office value makes the fat three-year contract which the Yanks gave him last Spring look like a dubious bit of business. The Babe’s failure in the world’s series, it was predicated, will work heavily against him next year.

As Associated Press report that appeared throughout the country predicted Ruth’s departure from the Bronx via a trade. “He was almost a total failure in the world’s series,” the nation learned.

Other sources, as Robert Weintraub notes in his recent book The House That Ruth Built, were equally as brutal. One writer from Baseball Magazine claimed that it was “almost certain Ruth can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of the fans.” Ruth was well on his way toward becoming “a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.” Tough words for a tough time.

I recently read Weintraub’s book. It’s on the season that followed Babe’s failures as the Yankees opened an expansive and expensive new ballpark in the Bronx and Ruth tried to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans. (Spoiler Alert: He does, and the Yanks win the 1923 World Series.) For me, though, the book was more of an eye-opener about popular attitudes toward Ruth than it was on the history of Yankee Stadium. Like many fans of the Bombers, I know about the battles between the Giants and Yankees over the Polo Grounds and the history behind the now-demolished old stadium.

Ruth, though, remains today even a mystery. With popular biographies and Hollywood movies, his shadow stretches over the game, and his accomplishments are tremendous. At a time when few players hit home runs, he launched 714 of them. With both his pitching arm and prodigious power, he captured seven World Series rings and reached the Fall Classic 10 times. He forever revolutionized the game.

Yet, the Babe was a controversial figure. He was a philanderer in an age when the press was far more forgiving; he drank a lot; he ate a lot. But to many traditionalists, Ruth was ruining the game. With Ruth’s home runs, the game became a brutalist display of power. Forget the finesse of a slap hitter, the speedy guy who could bunt for a base hit and create a run or the strategies behind scratching across just enough to subdue your opponent. In 1914, when Ruth made his debut, no team in the AL had more than 29 home runs. In 1920, he hit 54 by himself. It’s hard to comprehend just great change.

While reading Weintraub’s book this fall a few weeks after the Yanks’ season ended unceremoniously by the upstart Detroit Tigers, I couldn’t help but think of Alex Rodriguez. The Yanks’ superstar, aging and perhaps faded, was pilloried by the press for striking out in two key situations in Game 5 of the ALDS, and although many Yanks failed to hit during the series, A-Rod drew the brunt of the criticism. He who makes the make money, stands the tallest, is the biggest star attracts the harshest critics.

After the ALDS, the 2011 equivalent of the 1922 baseball press called A-Rod a liability to the Yanks. Has he reached the lowest ebb of his career? Will his failures work against him in the 2012 season? Babe had another 517 home runs left in him, but he was also, in 1922, eight years younger than A-Rod was in 2011.

The baseball press and the game’s fans have always been fickle. What have you done for me lately is our motto, and nothing about it is a new phenomenon. From the Babe to A-Rod with countless others in between, the failures we remember are always only the most recent ones until that big moment — for the Babe, it was his 1923 campaign with an MVP and a ring — makes us forget. And that’s the rebirth of baseball for you. Ain’t it grand?

Report: Yankees held private workout for Yoenis Cespedes

Update (Nov, 8th): Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees had some serious heat watching Cespedes in the Dominican Republic, including pro scouting director Billy Eppler, VP of baseball ops Mark Newman, special assistant Gordon Blakely, and scouts Gary Denbo and Donny Rowand. That doesn’t strike me as a routine scouting trip.

Original Post (Nov. 7th): Earlier today the world was introduced to Yoenis Cespedes, the next big thing out of Cuba who will be so over-hyped that it’ll be nearly impossible for him to meet expectations. Tonight, Baseball America’s Ben Badler reports that the Yankees held a private workout for the supposed 26-year-old outfielder on Monday, a clear indication that they have at least some interest in signing him. As far as we know, Cespedes has yet to declared a free agent by MLB, but that is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks.

Open Thread: Jorge Posada

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

I’m going to remember Jorge Posada for a lot of things. He battled through slump after slump in 2011, but he was an MVP caliber hitter in 2000, 2003, and 2007, and was no worse than above-average pretty much every other season of his career. Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have yet to contact Jorge yet this offseason, but I have to believe they’ll touch base at some point. Even if the team plans to turn the page and move on, which I assume they will, I can’t imagine they’ll just give Jorge the cold shoulder. Posada is an all-time great Yankee, a borderline Hall of Famer in my book, but all good things must come to an end. I just hope it isn’t an ugly divorce, not that I expect it will be.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils are the only local hockey team in action, so you’re pretty much stuck finding a way to entertain yourself. Talk about whatever you want here, go nuts.

Today In Pitching Rumors: Buehrle & Sanchez

Via Ken Rosenthal and Mark Feinsand, the Yankees are among a number of teams interested in free agent southpaw Mark Buehrle. Brian Cashman has at least put a call into Buehrle’s agent, just like he as with Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson, and Roy Oswalt, but the GM confirmed that no offers have been made to anyone yet. The lefty’s value in his durability, we’re talking eleven straight years of 30+ starts and 200+ innings. The Yankees can use some reliability, but these soft-tossing, no strikeout guys scare the crap out of me.

In other news, Jon Heyman says the Yankees were disappointed to see Jonathan Sanchez get trading to the Royals simply because they felt they had more to offer in a trade. I’m not sure why the Yankees would be interested in Sanchez … I mean yeah he strikes out a ton of guys, but he also walks more batters than anyone else, gives up a ton of fly balls, and is in the middle of a three-year velocity decline. All that for the low, low price of about $6M next season. Consider this a bullet dodged.