Commentary

Trade Spin: Rich Harden to the Cubs

Updated: July 9, 2008, 10:15 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's true what they say about there being a domino effect to baseball's annual midsummer trade fiesta. And once the first domino (CC Sabathia) falls...

The second (Rich Harden) is sure to follow. One day later, in this case.

The Chicago Cubs, perhaps reacting to news that Sabathia was headed to the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers, picked up the injury-prone right-hander from the Oakland A's on Tuesday, landing both Harden and reliever Chad Gaudin in exchange for right-hander Sean Gallagher, second baseman/outfielder Eric Patterson and outfielder Matt Murton, three names you might know, and one you might not: minor league catcher Josh Donaldson.

But Harden is the real prize of this deal. At least for fantasy, he is.

At 13 starts to date, Harden already has as many as he did in 2006-07 combined, showing a little more health, perhaps a bit more luck, than he has in a while. Not that he has been entirely injury-free, losing more than a month early in the year with a strained back muscle. Perhaps that's why the Cubs weren't forced to pony up a top prospect the way the Brewers did with Matt LaPorta. There's clear health risk for Harden, so to those fantasy owners who think him a totally "safe" pick, the deal itself speaks volumes about that.

When Harden is healthy, though, few can match his numbers. Consider this: In 11 starts since his return from the disabled list, he's 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 66 innings. Remove his 3 2/3-inning, eight-hit, five-run disaster his first start back, on May 11, and his ERA drops to 2.02, his WHIP 0.99. Since 2005 -- a span of 45 starts and six relief appearances -- his ERA is 2.76, his WHIP 1.12. Those are pretty dominating numbers, even for a guy who didn't toe the hill much in that span.

Harden is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and astonishingly low .146 batting average allowed in 10 career games (nine starts) against National League opponents (in interleague play), so the potential reward here is actually greater for him in Chicago than it was in Oakland, despite his moving from a pitcher-friendly to a hitter-friendly environment. He's the ultimate high-risk fantasy option, but the reward becomes comparably high, thanks to the trade. Harden might be hard-pressed to stay healthy long enough to pass his current pace of 24 starts, but if he makes even that many, you'll be happy.

NL-only owners should prepare to pony up the FAAB (free-agent acquisition budget) bucks to get Harden -- or Sabathia, if he hasn't gone up for bid yet. These are premier talents, well worth maximum bids or spending a top waiver rank.

For example, I acquired Sabathia in the NL version of LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality experts league) on Monday for the cool price of $97. (That's out of a $100 budget, though we can cash in out-for-the-year players for additional amounts, and I did with Yovani Gallardo to top out at $110.) The next-highest team had $96, and in its shoes, I'd say Harden is well worth that maximum bid, risk or not.

As for the other players in the deal:

• Gaudin: He served as a decent AL-only matchups option as a member of the Oakland rotation a year ago, but was bumped to the bullpen in May upon Harden's return from the DL. He'll be a spot-start candidate but isn't of much value for fantasy.

• Gallagher: He's actually a bit of a sleeper, though for this season he'll probably be at best a matchups type for AL-only and deep-mixed owners, albeit one with a higher ceiling than Gaudin's in 2007. Gallagher had a 4.45 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 10 starts for the Cubs, and he had lights-out minor league numbers with better than a strikeout per inning for his career there. The A's would be well served to make him a permanent member of their rotation -- the Cubs really couldn't promise him a permanent, defined role -- and in that ballpark, he should be by far the No. 2 talent in the deal.

• Patterson: The younger brother of the Reds' Corey, Eric Patterson might be a candidate to take over for prospective free agent Mark Ellis at second base in 2009. For this year, he likely will wind up in Triple-A or in a utility role, meaning he'll possess limited value -- all thanks to 30-steal speed -- unless Ellis is shopped in the next several weeks.

• Murton: If he cracks the A's roster immediately, all I'd be able to say is "It's about time." Murton, a .294 career hitter with an .810 OPS, somehow wasn't able to crack a Cubs outfield that hasn't been especially deep all season. He's capable of mashing left-handers, making him a useful spot start in daily formats, but there's a little AL-only sleeper potential if the A's are smart enough to deal Emil Brown and slot him in Brown's old role.

• Donaldson: A supplemental first-round pick by the Cubs in 2007, Donaldson is a decent offensive prospect who was in the midst of a dreadful season in Class A ball, batting .223 with a .640 OPS. He's at least two years from being a factor, so let's not be too hasty to call him the eventual successor to Kurt Suzuki.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.