Unloading Harden is Beane's business

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

In case you hadn't noticed, the philosophy of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is as follows:

"This is the way we operate, how we build this thing," he said from his office Thursday afternoon.

It's a business without labels. No in or out. No buyer or seller.

That's too easy for Beane. Too pedestrian. Too shallow. Too limiting. Too, well, everybody else.

In the hours after he dealt Rich Harden, one of the talented and fragile pitchers in the game, to the Chicago Cubs, Beane insisted the trade signaled nothing more than franchise construction and reconstruction, the usual routine of fitting the A's to the circumstances and his own vision. Even though Harden is a bargain at $4.5 million this year with a club option at $7 million next year.

This is no more a ceding of their AL West and wild-card semi-contention, Beane said, than was trading frontline starting pitcher Dan Haren and outfielder-first baseman Nick Swisher over the winter. Those, too, of course, were regarded as decisions to temporarily grant the division to the more powerful Los Angeles Angels. Through three months and 10 days the A's have granted five games in the standings. What they've acquired, it would appear, is a healthy future, which, incidentally, is why Harden will pitch Saturday for the Cubs and why the A's medical staff can stand down (at least as far as Harden is concerned).

Philosophically, perhaps, Beane could have waited another few weeks and maybe generated interest in Harden from those big-market clubs that spent big on five starting pitchers but skimped on the next two or three, leaving them with no depth.

But there are two conclusions to be drawn from why Beane made this trade and why he made it now.

He believed this – starter Sean Gallagher, outfielder Matt Murton, versatile Eric Patterson and a minor-league catcher – was the best he would ever get for Harden, and even then he had to include serviceable swingman Chad Gaudin.

And he believed had he waited three weeks, Harden might have been on the disabled list for the seventh time in six seasons.

"A healthy Harden needs to be moved," one scout said. "He is one pitch away from another setback."

The hard-throwing right-hander made four starts last season and nine the season before. And now he's pitched on 12 consecutive turns, his longest run in four years. Even then, there are signs Cubs manager Lou Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild will need to take special care of their new sub-ace. Harden, for instance, has pitched very well on four days' rest, but brilliantly on five days' rest. When he pitched last Tuesday on four days' rest, he threw 91 pitches and didn't last past the fifth, then pitched only five innings in his next start, ultimately allowing five runs in 10 innings in the two starts and leaking velocity as he went.

Nobody doesn't love Rich Harden when he's heaving fastballs in the high 90s for seven or eight innings. Sadly for the A's and Harden, that hasn't happened all that often, and at the time of the trade the organization was actually considering expanding the rotation to six, in part to cover for Harden's frailties.

They liked the guy, loved his stuff and tried to believe in tomorrow. Then, given the chance, Beane opted for what he could trust, which was moving the organization again toward its greater ideals. This is no knock on Harden, who, despite persistent chattering otherwise, is a tough guy who wants the ball, but has learned to trust that his small physical issues too often become season-ending issues. And neither does it disparage the Cubs, who lost no critical players in the deal, did not alter the course of their season and took the flier that Harden will bear up under the stress of the second half. In Harden's previous five seasons, he accumulated only 12 starts in September.

At the moment of the trade, Harden was walking OK, stretching OK, and throwing a baseball reasonably well. It might never have gotten better than that. In the past few years alone, Beane has sprinkled across baseball – by trade or free agency – starters Haren, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and, as of Tuesday night, Harden, who is the best "stuff" guy of them all.

Same as ever, Beane offered no apologies, no white flag.

"So far," he said, "it's worked for the last 10 or 11 years."

And, he said, who knows what the coming few weeks bring. The organization is deep in prospects, many of them pitchers. Bobby Crosby, Frank Thomas, Mike Sweeney, Eric Chavez and Keith Foulke are on the disabled list, all expected to come staggering off after the All-Star break. The rest of July will provide time for re-evaluation. Maybe Beane looks up and sees vulnerability in the Angels, opportunity in the wild-card race. Maybe he sticks to the usual plan of broadening and deepening the organization, and Huston Street or Joe Blanton or Justin Duchscherer are the next to go.

Buyer or seller? Beane scoffed.

"I'm both all the time," he said. "I want opportunity. Nothing's off limits."

He granted the decisions are difficult. He granted they are not always popular. So it is.

"I'm interested in sleeping for five years," he said. "I'm not interested in one sleepless night."

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