The Cubs say that Ted Lilly’s surgery last week doesn’t change their minds about allowing Rich Harden to become a free agent without making an offer.
And it shouldn’t.
Some critics of that sentiment have suggested the Cubs must try to retain Harden, but the team is right to let him go.
Harden’s a good guy, and his talent is unquestioned.
But a history of injury problems and a thin free agent market for high-end pitchers almost guarantee Harden’s ability to command a multi-year deal and suggest a strong possibility somebody will wind up overpaying for him.
Even in a season his balky shoulder didn’t seem to be a problem until the final two weeks of the season, Harden was a pitcher who needed to be managed with extra rest between starts, when possible, and who averaged nearly 18 pitches an inning in 2009 — making him a five-inning pitcher far too often.
Whether he rebounds to look at dominant as he did the first month the Cubs had him in 2008 (and for glimpses in ’09), the risk is too great for a team looking at ’11 and beyond for payroll flexibility (with contracts expiring) to make fundamental changes that extend and strengthen its competitive window.
Randy Wells is locked in among three healthy returning starters. Lilly may well be ready to pitch again at a high level by May. Jeff Samardzija may be ready to step into a starter’s role next season. Tom Gorzelanny is a competitive candidate for the fifth starter job.
And lefty Sean Marshall is more than deserving of a full-fledged chance to start — not to mention the fact he has a pretty decent track record as a starter-reliever swing man for this team the past two seasons, making him a capable stand-in for Lilly even if Lilly is out until the All-Star break.
Harden? At worst he’ll create more instability in the rotation for a big-ticket price. At best, he’s a dice roll not worth taking.