Harden shouldering great expectations for Cubs

Jeff Passan

MESA, Ariz. – Rich Harden reported the following Saturday morning: "I feel great." And this should be promising news. Harden represents everything that's right about the Chicago Cubs – the talent and potential and beckoning excellence.

Only there's this thing Harden said March 25, 2006: "I feel great."

And again on March 21, 2007: "I feel great."

Neither of those seasons turned out quite like Harden imagined. In 2006, he pitched once between April and September. The next year, he shut down his season July 8. Harden, so blessed with a right arm that fires 100-mph cannonballs from a frame that cracks 6 feet in spikes only, was likewise cursed with the sort of fragility reserved for Fabergé eggs.

Now he's proclaiming health in spite of a shoulder that … well, it's not quite clear. There is some sort of a tear. Harden wouldn't say how serious. Neither will the Cubs. Only that he'd be gone 12 to 18 months if he opted for surgery, which indicates that this isn't quite a boo-boo that'll get better if mommy kisses it.

So forgive the denizens of Cubdom for needing some prescription-grade antiperspirant. It's just that, you know, they've done this tango. Kerry Wood. Mark Prior. Young arms. Incredible beginnings. Limitless potential. Then injuries hit and sent their careers Blagojeviching down the commode.

"Now that you say that, it makes a lot of sense," Harden said. "I haven't thought about that. I could see that. Especially with my past, going through injuries."

There was the oblique strain. The back pain. The elbow-ligament issues. And now the shoulder, brought on, Harden said, by reaching to barehand a ground ball up the middle a few years back. Damaged goods after all.

Still, who could tell? A month before the Cubs acquired Harden in July, he struck out three hitters on nine pitches in one inning. Over nearly three months with Chicago, Harden limited batters to a .157 average and struck out 89 in 71 innings. When he pitched, Harden was every bit as good as the man whose acquisition he was brought in to combat, CC Sabathia.

Of course, the frequency of Harden's starts is the whole rub, and he disappeared for two weeks in early September because of a cortisone shot. Then he bombed out in the Cubs' season-ending loss that completed the Dodgers' first-round playoff sweep. Harden chose rehabilitation over surgery, and the Cubs picked up his $7 million option hoping like hell for Dr. Jekyll.

Rather than return home to Canada, Harden spent the entire winter in Arizona working with a physical therapist to fortify his shoulder and Cubs coaches to strengthen his upper body. Though the offseason-fitness program is a tried-and-true spring cliché, Harden's sincerity was evident. He hates being hurt, coddled, babied.

He leaves the Cubs little choice. Their starting-pitching depth is among the best in baseball, so they plan on taking advantage of the unusually long 39-game Cactus League season to prepare the staff for Harden's scheduled absences. Between off-days and intentionally skipping starts, the Cubs are aiming for Harden to start 25 games, same as last season.

"We threw out that number," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He might pitch 32. You never know. We're going to watch his pitch count. We're going to keep him strong. This kid loves to compete. But at the same time, we're aware he's had some physical problems and we're not going to overtax him."

Part of that is incumbent upon Harden. Though he can hit 100 mph with his fastball, Harden said he continues to learn the virtues of locating pitches and changing speeds. OK. Again, a nice thing to say. Now let's see him drive the speed limit in a Lamborghini.

"It's tough," he said. "You want to be out there every single game for 100-plus pitches. It's tough not to."

Over Harden's first three seasons, he lasted 100 pitches in 37 of 61 starts. Since 2006, he has started 38 games and hit the century mark 14 times. He hasn't thrown a complete game since '05, either, and made it into the eighth inning just twice.

And yet the expectations on Harden are the highest of any Cubs pitcher, higher than Carlos Zambrano or Ryan Dempster, because at his best, Harden is far superior. He's better than just about anyone when healthy.

During the Cubs' first workout, it was evident Harden isn't. While the rest of the pitchers threw off mounds, Harden played catch on flat ground. As impressed as Piniella was with his staff – "The first day all the pitchers look like 20-game winners," he said – even he saw the incongruity that his likeliest pitcher to win 20 games looked the least like it.

While Chicago's pitchers threw, Jake Peavy sat on a bench across town in Peoria and talked about his offseason. The Cubs spent weeks trying to put together a deal for him. They offered dozens of packages and included a third team and a fourth team and tried everything in their power. And there Peavy was Saturday, answering questions in a San Diego Padres uniform.

The Cubs wanted Peavy for innumerable reasons. Near the top of the list is Harden. Because no matter how much he smiles or deflects or denies, nothing blunts the reality that something is wrong with his shoulder.

And that is anything but great.