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Harden Decisions

By Garrett Monaghan

Rich Harden rolled to his third straight strong August start, and the Cubs cruised to a 7-1 victory over the Padres on Tuesday night. It was something of a bittersweet victory, as the Cubs dropped the first two games to the cellar-dwelling Padres, but the Cubs will take anything they can get right now.

Harden, who has suffered through several mini slumps this year, has dropped his ERA by almost a run and a half since mid-July; and gave the Cubs' tattered bullpen a much needed stress-free night. Harden's recent success has been a rare spark of hope for the otherwise fading Cubbies, but that success itself brings up some potentially worrying off-season questions.

Harden will be a free agent for the first time at the end of the year and thus far, there haven't been any noises from either the Cubs or from Harden that a return to the North Side might be in the cards. By itself, that isn't surprising given the Cubs' ownership situation, but I'm a bit surprised that nobody appears to have said anything public on the matter at all. We haven't heard anything from Harden along the lines of:
"Hey, I'd love to be back in a Cubs uniform next year if they agree to stop signing idiots like Milton Bradley."

Nor anything from the Cubs along the lines of:

"Rich is a great pitcher, but we've already got one goofy Canadian on the team, and Dempster already drives everyone crazy by leaving Labatt Blue cans all over the clubhouse. Sorry, Rich. See 'ya around."

I seriously doubt if the Cubs are in a position to decide whether they're going to be able to keep Harden or not, but they should seriously consider it. Although he's having one of his worst statistical seasons thus far, Harden is absolutely unhittable when he's healthy, and he's one of the few Cubs starters who is a genuine strikeout threat. Harden is also only 27, which ties him with Zambrano as the second-youngest starter in the Cubs' rotation. Theoretically, the next 4-5 years should be Harden's peak years, and it would definitely be in the Cubs' interests to lock him up if they can find the money.

Harden's making $7 million this year, and would undoubtedly be looking for a sizable raise if he hits the open market. With the economy probably not swinging around in his favor, he could probably expect to land a $10-$12 million a year deal, which would place him in approximately the same range as Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster. Scraping up the cash could be something of a challenge for the Cubs, even with a number of other players (Gregg, Heilmann, Reed Johnson, John Grabow, and Neal Cotts) also becoming free agents. The Cubs can probably do without any of the other guys, and the money could probably be better spent keeping Harden in Chicago.

Given the tempestuous nature of the ownership talks between the Ricketts family and the Tribune company, the off-season may be well under way before the Cubs have any idea what their budget for next year will actually be. Whatever the case, somebody should be making the case for keeping Harden as a Cub well into the future.

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