In the 2009-10 offseason, the Athletics guaranteed $12MM to injury-risk starting pitchers Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer. For 2010-11, the A's made their major commitments to relievers Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, but also picked up starters Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy for a total of $2.5MM. So far in 2011, the two righty starters have combined for a tidy 3.76 ERA in 206 innings.
Less than a third of those innings have come from Harden, who developed a lat injury in February and didn't make his season debut until July 1st. Since then Harden has made all of his scheduled starts, 11 of them heading into today's action. He seemed headed to Boston on July 30th, but the Red Sox saw something they didn't like in his medical files and killed the trade. Whatever they saw hasn't been an issue yet, as Harden made six starts in August and struck out 42. During that time the Indians won a claim on Harden, but he again stayed put.
After a terrible 2010 with the Rangers, Harden appears to have returned to the formula that worked relatively well for him in '08 and '09: a huge strikeout rate, limited hits, lots of walks, and a lot of home runs allowed. Though this approach has led to only a 4.55 ERA in 63 1/3 innings, Harden's 3.39 SIERA ranks fifth among impending free agent starting pitchers with at least 60 innings – just behind Bartolo Colon, C.J. Wilson, and Erik Bedard – though the innings cutoff was designed to include him. Harden's 10.2 K/9 is easily tops among free agent starters, and ranks third in baseball overall.
In 2008-09, Harden showed the ability to provide about 150 innings per season. However, after '10 and '11, teams might have to lower their expectation to 100 innings. Harden seems likely to continue signing one-year deals for the duration of his career, unless he takes off as a reliever at some point. His last two free agent contracts guaranteed $7.5MM and $1.5MM, and I think we can split the difference and expect a guarantee in the $4.5MM range for 2012. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle has reported that Harden would be happy to return to the A's next year, so perhaps they'll get a bit of a discount.