CHICAGO – Risk is not a game to a general manager. It is learning your closest competitor has traded for a reigning Cy Young winner and assessing your options and weighing how to countermove and wondering whether it's by acquiring a pitcher who epitomizes the very concept itself.
Jim Hendry, the man who built these Chicago Cubs, is acquainted with risk. He is the GM who signed a player over the phone while undergoing an EKG, then got fitted for an angioplasty an hour later. For baseball, he risked his life, so his latest foray into the treachery, the trade Tuesday for Oakland ace Rich Harden – the one that could make or break the Cubs' quest for their first championship in 100 years – was old hat.
"If there wasn't risk, (A's GM) Billy Beane would have never taken the phone call," Hendry said Wednesday. "If the guy was healthy over the last two years and made 30-something starts, he's untouchable."
Chicago, a city familiar with untouchables, has its newest Eliot Ness in Harden, who likewise wields great power. Hendry is right: When Harden is healthy, he stands alongside Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Johan Santana and, yes, new Milwaukee Brewer CC Sabathia as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Unlike the other four, avoiding acronyms – MRI, DL, WCT%JSH (why can't the %*@#! just stay healthy) – has proved Harden's hardest task.
Health is one of the last great mysteries in baseball. Front offices can dissect every play, break down statistics, employ probabilities with almost everything. When they apply that knowledge to injuries, particularly to pitchers' arms, the computers spit back a big, frowning emoticon. No one knows who gets injured or why or, greatest of all, how they can prevent it.
Biomechanics may ultimately provide that insight. Until then, it's a matter of gut feeling on a pitcher such as Harden, and Hendry, though loath to admit it, felt a few butterflies in his when the Brewers landed Sabathia.
So on Tuesday morning, he rang Beane. For weeks, Hendry had resisted including Sean Gallagher, the promising 22-year-old right-hander, in discussions about Harden. OK, Hendry said. Gallagher's in.
The rest of the haggling was cake. The Cubs wanted Chad Gaudin as a long man, and the A's would add a pair of buried players, outfielder Matt Murton and second baseman Eric Patterson, along with Class-A catching prospect Josh Donaldson. By the evening, almost exactly 48 hours after Cleveland agreed to send Sabathia to Milwaukee, the deal was announced.
"We know what we're in for," Hendry said. "To me, the risk was worth the reward."
The next four months will judge so. Harden could be what the Cubs envision: the ham to Carlos Zambrano's cheese, the foil to Sabathia, the power arm that throws 95 mph and throws a split-fingered fastball that drops faster than Bear Stearns stock. Harden leads the major leagues in the percentage of swing-and-miss strikes, and no other pitcher is close.
Or Harden could come up lame, his arm or leg, his hip or oblique, his big toe or his little finger. If he did, it would surprise no one.
"I've had a history with injuries," Harden said. "That's something I'm definitely working toward: being out there every fifth day and pitching. It's been an ongoing process of finding out what works for myself from my training routine to pregame."
Oakland never could find the answer, and the A's, cognizant that porcelain is as breakable as it is precious, sold high. The move looked curious on the surface. Oakland is eight games over .500, well within striking distance of Los Angeles in their division and Boston in the wild card. Harden is 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA this season and has made 11 consecutive starts, the most since he started 12 in a row in 2005.
To a small degree, the move was a preemptive strike against the matter of Harden's disappearing velocity. In his last two outings, his fastball has sat closer to 90 mph than the 97 he reaches when at his best.
"Yeah, the last couple games it may be down a little bit," Harden said. "We all have games like that. It happens over the course of the season to just about everybody. I'm not concerned about it. I'm sure it'll be back to where it's been."
More than that, one A's source said, Oakland simply couldn't trust Harden to stay healthy. It wasn't so much his work ethic or dedication to pitching. The A's, in contrast to the Cubs, chose to mitigate their risk.
Chicago will do what it can to ensure its investment in Harden doesn't implode and take the rest of the team's season as collateral damage. With Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall alongside the big three, the Cubs have six starters and will consider skipping Harden's turn in the rotation every so often. When the schedule dictates an extra day off, rest assured he'll get it. There will be no pushing Harden past the 120-pitch mark. The injury gods are fickle. No need to tempt them.
"Just keep him healthy," Piniella said.
Were it that easy, Hendry said, "He's not in Chicago today." Harden arrived in the afternoon, talked with Hendry and Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild and trainer Mark O'Neal, met his teammates, slipped on his Cubs uniform to make sure it fit, sat on the bench during the game and watched Zambrano dominate in a 5-1 victory against Cincinnati. It was the same routine Sabathia went through two days earlier, and Harden hopes his first start for the Cubs on Friday or Saturday goes as swimmingly as Sabathia's victory Tuesday in Milwaukee.
The Cubs are operating on the assumption that it will, and that Harden is what separates them between chumps and champs. Last year, the Cubs fizzled out in the first round, indelibly marking themselves as the latter.
They've played great baseball this year, the starting pitching and bullpen and offense and fielding working in concert, and have the best record in the National League to show for it.
Of course, the Brewers loaded up with Sabathia and are hot on Chicago's trail, and pesky St. Louis doesn't seem to want to die and may itself make a move. Someone wondered whether this was a good thing for the Cubs, the league's three best records residing in the Central, beating up on one another for months on end.
"I'll let you know at the end of the year," Piniella said.
It was the right answer. Just to a different question: whether the Cubs' risk really was worth the reward.
- Jim Hendry