Once the most electric pitcher in the Oakland A's rotation, Rich Harden has returned to Oakland to try to win a spot in the A's rotation. The right-hander's one-year deal with his original club was announced by the A's on Tuesday. He is expected to compete with a host of pitchers for the A's fifth starter role in spring training and will also be a candidate to pitch out of the A's bullpen.
Harden returns to the A's for the first time since 2008, when he was traded mid-season to the Chicago Cubs along with Chad Gaudin for Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher and Josh Donaldson. Harden was in the middle of an outstanding season at the time of that trade, having posted a 5-1 record and a 2.34 ERA in 77 innings. He would go onto post a 5-1 record and a 1.77 ERA in 71 more innings for the Cubs that season.
Since that time, however, Harden hasn't had the same level of effectiveness. In 2009 for Chicago, he went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA, although he did strike-out 171 in 141 innings. In 2010, Harden pitched 92 innings for the AL Champion Texas Rangers, but he struggled for much of the season, posting a 5.58 ERA with only 75 strike-outs and 62 walks. He was left off of the Rangers' post-season roster.
Harden's career has been marked by moments of brilliance and moments of frustration, mostly brought on by injuries. The native of British Columbia was originally drafted by Oakland in the 17th round of the 2000 draft as a draft-and-follow candidate. He was signed by the A's before the 2001 draft. He moved quickly through the A's minor league system, reaching the big leagues in July 2003. He found immediate success, posting a 1.69 ERA over his first five starts. However, he struggled after that and wound-up pitching out of the bullpen for the A's in the playoffs, winning Game One in relief (thanks in large part to a fantastic defensive play by Eric Chavez) and losing Game Three on a walk-off homerun.
In 2004, Harden pitched the only full season of his career, making 31 starts for the A's. He had a 3.99 ERA and an 11-7 record and he struck-out 167 in 189.2 innings. In 2005, Harden was dominant, posting a 2.53 ERA and going 10-5, but he was limited by injuries to 128 innings. He would miss most of the A's 2006 run to the American League Championship Series, making only nine starts (46.2 innings), although he pitched well in a losing effort in Game Three of the ALCS in Detroit. Injuries limited Harden even further in 2007, when he pitched only 25.2 innings.
Harden's injury history is extensive and has not been limited to one area of his body. Over the past few years, he has struggled with a sore shoulder, a sore elbow, and side and back muscle strains. He had two DL stints with Texas last season.
When healthy, Harden has had some of the most electric stuff in all of baseball. His fastball was clocked regularly in the high-90s when he was with the A's previously, although his radar gun readings were more in the low-90s the past two seasons. He also features a change-up/split-finger hybrid that has baffled hitters since he came to the big leagues. Throughout his career, Harden has had a close working relationship with the A's new major league pitching coach Ron Romanick, who was the A's minor league pitching coordinator when Harden was with the A's previously.
The A's fifth starter competition this spring will feature three players coming back from injury problems -- Harden, Brandon McCarthy (shoulder) and Josh Outman (elbow). That trio is expected to compete with Bobby Cramer, Tyson Ross and Clayton Mortensen.