Position: RHP Height: 6-1 Weight: 180 Born: 11/30/81 Bats: Left Throws: Right
Rich Harden was drafted by Oakland in the 17th round in 2000, from Central Arizona Junior College. He signed as a "draft and follow" pick just before the '01 draft, then went to the short-season Northwest League and had an excellent campaign, fanning 100 in 74 innings. He started 2002 at Class A Visalia in the California League and pitched very well, earning a promotion at mid-season to Double-A Midland, where he was even more effective. Many experts considered Harden the top right-handed pitching prospect in the game entering '03, and so far he has lived up to that billing, throwing 13 hitless innings in Double-A to earn a promotion to Triple-A. He was hit hard in his last outing there, but still boasts 21 strikeouts in 16.2 innings.
Harden's fastball is very good at 92-95 mph, popping at 96 occasionally. The pitch has movement, and he's learned to hit spots with it this year. He can sink it or make it rise as needed. A lot of pitchers have hot fastballs, but what makes Harden special are his off-setting pitches: a changeup, a splitter, and a slider. The change is extremely deceptive because he throws it with the same delivery and release point as the fastball. His split-finger pitch is sharp and gets a lot of ground balls. His slider is inconsistent, though it appears to have improved compared to this time last year. Harden's command wavers at times; note his high walk rate in Double-A last year. But it's been excellent in '03, and the key reason for his strong performance so far. Scouts like his competitive instincts, and his arm was not abused as an amateur.
Like Jesse Foppert who was profiled last week, Harden's career has been marked by extremely high strikeout rates: 100 in 74 innings in '01, 187 in 153 last year, 38 in 30 innings so far this year. Such dominance is the best possible sign of a bright future for him. His K/BB marks have been less impressive, but it is notable that his K/BB this year is 38/5, excellent under any conditions and much better than what he's done in the past. With a terrific K/IP, and an improving K/BB, all signs are positive for his future, both short and long term.
Harden has had no significant injuries. Oakland has worried a bit about the potential for high pitch counts when his command wavers, but the A's haven't pushed him beyond his limits, and they do have a good track record for keeping their pitchers healthy. Any young pitcher is an injury risk, of course. Hopefully, Harden can continue improving his pitch efficiency and keep the odds stacked in his favor.
What to expect
Oakland believes that Harden could be its future ace, and many objective observers agree. He certainly has the stuff to dominate, and is gaining command. If Harden pitches well over the next few months in Triple-A, he should see Oakland sometime in the second half, with an excellent chance for a rotation spot in 2004. In Harden and Foppert, the two Bay Area teams boast the two top right-handed prospects in the game, both with ace potential down the road.
John Sickels is the author of the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, and is now working on the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book. His biography of Bob Feller will be published next spring. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at JohnSickels.com.