Sunday, August 30, 2009

Catching Up with a Harden White Paper

After two weeks of traveling through Colorado with my family, I'm the last person you should be coming to for any insight on the Twins this week. So why am I writing? Because I'm afraid if I don't restart soon I might never.

It doesn't make it any easier that there are so many juicy topics. The Twins resurgance, the upcoming White Sox series, the September callups, two new bullpen arms....and the possible acquisition of Rich Harden.

The last, to a Twins Geek, is the biggest news, and worthy of a little research. Sorry if it's a little dry. I'll be walking through this as I go along.....

Harden would be available for seven starts for the Twins if he is acquired from the Chicago Cubs. He's supposed to pitch for them Monday night, but if he starts for the Twins on Tuesday or Wednesday, he could be lined up to pitch the leading game of both Detroit series. This for a guy who, you could argue, was as valuable an acquisition as CC Sabathia last year, and has posted a 2.94 ERA over the last two years.

Yes, he's unreliable because of his injury history. He's also very good. And he's been VERY good over his last eight starts, with seven quality starts and a 1.80 ERA. He also has that magic strikeout rate that gets us geeks so excited, though it's worth noting that we might want to get over that, seeing as those extra pitches that lead to strikeouts also likely contribute to his diminutive inning totals.

But what's really fascinating about Harden to a Twins Geek is his perceived 'value' in the marketplace. At a very simple level, he's going to be a free agent this offseason, so he's only worth seven starts, which is worth....well, it's hard to say. If we look at that phenomenal eight-game stretch he just completed, the Cubs won just four of those games.

I suppose I could break out a sabremetric like VORP here, but with just a month remaining, lets' eyeball it a bit. If Harden is replacing various fill-ins, like Jeff Manship, it seems realistic to say he's worth at least a couple of games, and maybe as many as three. And if one of those games are versus the Tigers, then maybe we're talking about one more game swing. It's a risky play, but there is some real value there. And if he fronts a starting rotation, that value could increase significantly.

But the value that the Cubs and Twins are focusing on is also off the field, and is a result of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In an attempt to reduce the demand for (and salaries of) free agents, there is a clause which states that a team that loses a very desirable free agents (based on a formula developed by Elias) receives two top compensatory draft picks - one from the team that signed the player and one "sandwiched" between the first and second round.

However, and this is key, that only happens if they offer "arbitration" to the free agent. That means the team offers the player a chance to sign a one-year deal with them at a salary level that both can estimate but which will be ultimately decided by an arbitrator. In Harden's case, that essentially means offering him a one-year $10 million contract for next year. If he takes it, the Twins or Cubs must pay it. If not, that team would get the draft picks.

So, IF the team offers arbitration and IF Harden ends up going to another team anyway, he would be worth two high draft picks to that team. And since high draft picks often become top prospects, the Cubs are reportedly claiming that two top prospects are the starting point for Harden.

But what makes Harden's case so interesting is that it isn't totally clear that either team would definitely offer him arbitration. And it also isn't totally clear that if they do offer it, whether he would become a free agent.

The Cubs claim they would absolutely offer him arbitration, but of course it is in their best interest to claim that. But posturing aside, given their payroll and their needs in their starting rotation, it would make sense to do so and almost be irresponsible to not do so. The only thing that really gives me pause is that they're even entertaining offers. If they are in true talks about Harden, it must be to save the $1+ million he's owed this year. And if they're trying to save that, they might not be too keen on the $10 million he could make next year.

It would also make sense for the Twins to offer him arbitration. The Twins will have money to spend given their projected payroll, could use the starting pitching, and have a recent history of liking one-year contracts (even if they are somewhat expensive). The only puzzling factor is all the noise in the rumors about the Twins wanting an extension. Why would the Twins want an extension with a guy who has serious injury problems and who hasn't made more than 25 starts in a season since 2004? Why wouldn't they just offer him arbitration?

Ok, so maybe that wasn't that tough. It sure makes sense for both teams to offer him arbitration. But what are the chances he accepts it?

The question really is: what are the chances that some team offers him a deal better than that, such as a 2-year, $18 million contract or a 3-year, $26 million contract. Despite the down market last year, the Yankees guaranteed $82.5 million over 5 years to AJ Burnett, who also has struggled to stay healthy and accumulate starts prior to his contract year. To be fair, Harden makes Burnett look like Lou Gehrig, but Harden is five years younger and shows similar strikeout acumen and promise.

And promise is an intoxicating commodity. Just ask the Mets, who signed Oliver Perez to a $36 million, 3-year contract after he teased them for a couple of years. The only other free agent that looks somewhat comparable is Ben Sheets, who went unsigned, but he's just plain unable to pitch due to his latest surgery. Provided he stays healthy, Harden will likely be able to secure a significant multi-year deal, as the only free agent starting pitchers that seem likely to outrank him are Cliff Lee and Josh Beckett.

Again, provided he stays healthy. If he gets seriously hurt over the next two month, his team can't offer him arbitration, and he's not worth two top draft picks. That's what the Cubs have to gain by trading him. If they can get two top prospects, they cash their chips in a bit early, get their return, and probably save themselves a million bucks this year. If the Twins pull off the deal for two top prospects, they get their seven starts, a bill for a million dollars, two top draft picks, and a few healthy slices of risk to handle.

That seems like a fair trade to me. Taking some risks in September and October should be something that organizations fight for, not avoid.


Anonymous said...

The Cubs also save money from the signing bonuses to those draft picks next year since they don't have to sign them. that should equate to about 2-3 million in additional savings. that should have some value too as they will receive prospects who already have their bonuses.

TT said...

Geek -

I agree with you. Harden is the kind of guy that would help immediately and the risk of him taking arbitration is minimal. If he does and stays healthy he is worth the paycheck.

That said, those are all reasons to doubt the Cubs will let him go at a reasonable price. If they would take Phil Humber and RA Dickey, that would be a different story :).

Topper said...

John, good to have you back, hope your trip was excellent!

I would definitely be willing to part with a couple of upper prospects for Harden. At the very least it will provide some excitement and show our core players that semblance of a commitment to winning now when we have a chance, which is definitely going to be important going into this offseason.

At best it gives us the boost we need to get into the postseason for a hopefully solid run and we either get two high draft picks next year or get an ace on our staff again as we open our new ballpark.

Thanks for your insights!