|The dust had yet to settle on the C.C. Sabathia-to-the-Brewers deal when the Cubs, Milwaukee’s chief NL Central rival, made a trade of their own, securing the services of Athletics righthanders Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin for a package of three major league-ready players and one prospect. Probably not coincidentally, the announcement was made about an hour before Sabathia first took the hill for the Brewers.
Chicago sent righthander Sean Gallagher and left fielder Matt Murton, both of whom were on the major league roster, as well as Triple-A Iowa second baseman Eric Patterson and low Class A Peoria catcher Josh Donaldson to the A’s.
|The Big Leaguers|
|Harden, a draft-and-follow find from Central Arizona JC in 2000, was a revelation for the A’s in 2003 when he burst onto the prospect scene by posting a 2.74 ERA and striking out 108 batters in 102 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. The British Columbia-born righthander started the Futures Game for the World Team that year (be sure to check out this year’s game on Sunday) and made his major league debut that July. Harden rapidly moved up Oakland’s starting pitching hierarchy, standing head-to-head with the big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito (well, maybe only with the 6-foot Hudson; Harden is listed at 6-foot-1) by the conclusion of his first full season in 2004. He went 11-7, 3.99 with 167 strikeouts and 81 walks in 190 innings. In what would prove to be a key barometer of future success, Harden made 31 starts in ’04. He was 22 and looked like a future ace.
While he pitched exceptionally well in 2005 (10-5, 2.53 with 121-43 K-BB in 128 innings), Harden spent 28 days on the shelf recovering from a strained left oblique. That was nothing compared with the 146 and 151 days he spent on the disabled list in 2006 and 2007, while recovering from, respectively, an elbow (and then back) strain and a twice-strained shoulder. Harden, 26, even missed 30 days this season while recovering from another shoulder strain—technically a subscapularis muscle under his right arm. When healthy, though, Harden’s stuff is undeniable. His fastball regularly reaches the mid 90s, which makes his high-80s changeup, which he can make move in two directions by changing his finger pressure, an equalizing pitch against hitters who have to sit on the heat. Harden has not been throwing his split-finger or curve this year, but his changeup looks a lot like a splitter, without causing wear on his elbow. Harden is owed $7 million next season, if the Cubs pick up his option, after which he can become a free agent.
A six-year major league veteran despite being just 25 years old, Gaudin has worked, often successfully, as both a starter and a reliever for the Devil Rays, Blue Jays and A’s. He’s gone 24-23, 4.33 in 422 career innings, with 299 strikeouts and 197 walks. Gaudin, a 34th-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2001 out of a Louisiana high school, occupied both roles for Oakland, going from reliever in 2006 (3.09 ERA in 64 innings) to starter in 2007 (4.42 ERA in 199 innings) and back to reliever this season (3.59 ERA in 63 innings). Despite standing just 5-foot-10, Gaudin gets good plane and sink on his high-80s fastball, and he also throws a darting slider that has made him tougher on righthanded batters throughout his career. All of his pitches are delivered with plus natural movement. Gaudin’s shift back to the bullpen this season was brought about by three major factors: 1) the A’s starting pitching depth, 2) his inconsistent control is stronger in short stints, and 3) he had surgery to repair a labrum in his hip last offseason and the lighter workload stands to improve his durability going forward.
The Cubs were in the process of shifting Gallagher, 22, to a relief role, in order to make room for Sean Marshall in the rotation. The rookie righthander has been solid this season, going 3-4, 4.45 with 49 strikeouts and 22 walks in 59 innings. He’s added velocity since signing as a 12th-round pick out of a Fort Lauderdale high school in 2004 and he now sits at 90-94 mph with his fastball. Gallagher’s 11-to-5 curveball gives him a second plus offering, and he’ll occasionally throw a changeup to lefties and a softer version of his curveball to righties.
Murton, a supplemental first-round pick by Boston in 2003, had worked his way back to Chicago after beginning the year in Iowa. It’s a familiar refrain. He also spent parts of 2005 and 2007 in Des Moines. The 26-year-old righthanded batter’s value is tied to his ability to hit lefties, which he has done in the big leagues, batting .316/.389/.494 in 316 career at-bats against them. He’s a mediocre-for-a-corner-outfielder .282/.346/.422 in 554 at-bats versus righties. A cog in the four-team blockbuster that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and Orlando Cabrera to the Red Sox at the 2004 deadline, Murton shone in a 2005 big league audition, hitting .321/.386/.521 in 140 at-bats. That performance earned him regular play in 2006, when he batted .297/.365/.444 in 455 at-bats—a total he hasn’t surpassed in his three other big league seasons combined.
|Patterson, who like Murton was drafted out of Georgia Tech, offers plus speed, surprising pop for his size (he’s 5-foot-11, 170 pounds) and a sound batting eye. He has enough power to get himself in trouble, as they say, when he should be focused on getting on base. Like older brother Corey, he’s a lefthanded batter. In 772 at-bats for Iowa in the past three seasons, the 25-year-old Patterson has hit .308/.363/.474 with 70 walks and 139 strikeouts, but he lacks the range or instincts to play even average defense at second base. As a result, he’s seen considerable time in left and center field because he lacks the arm for right or for the left side of the infield. An eighth-round pick in 2004, Patterson has done little with 46 big league at-bats, hitting .239/.308/.348.
The Cubs used the 48th overall pick in the 2007 draft to select Donaldson, a catcher out of Auburn. He hit exceptionally well (.346/.470/.605) for short-season Boise in his pro debut last season but has slumped horribly this season. The 22-year-old managed just .217/.276/.349 for low Class A Peoria. Donaldson provides more offense and athleticism than most catchers, but the converted third baseman is rough behind the plate, albeit with the potential to have an above-average arm. He controls the strike zone and isn’t afraid to go the other way when behind the count, but he hasn’t come close to replicating this season the average or power he showed in his debut.
|Credit Cubs general manager Jim Hendry with acquiring Harden, a pitcher with no-doubt-about-it frontline stuff, and a solid reliever in Gaudin at no real cost to the 2008 team. None of the Cubs’ frontline young players, save for big leaguers like Gallagher and Geovany Soto, were having remotely successful years, but that didn’t stop Hendry from getting a deal done—and he didn’t have to touch shortstop Ronny Cedeno or center fielder Felix Pie to do it.
But A’s GM Billy Beane has made out well in these veterans-for-bulk trades—hitting on the Dan Haren, Nick Swisher and Mark Mulder deals and misfiring badly only on the Tim Hudson one. And the fact that Oakland would trade its best pitcher in a season in which they’ve been competitive gives us an idea how the organization assesses the prospect of Harden’s continued health. With 13 starts this season, Harden has matched his total from 2006 and 2007 combined, and while he’s 5-1, 2.34 with 92 whiffs in 77 innings in that span, his 355 days on the disabled list from 2005 to 2008 is simply a staggering number.
But it’s a move that could pay off handsomely for the Cubs if they make a deep playoff run. The caveat, of course, being that they’ll really miss Gallagher if Harden goes down with injury—though it may be a risk mitigated if Gaudin can shift back to the rotation.