The Chicago Cubs’ decision yesterday to not offer arbitration to pitcher Rich Harden has been the subject of much hand wringing. We’ve been no exception. So it is a credit to anyone who can cogently defend the move, as Bruce Miles has done. But that said, Bruce is just plain wrong.

I really hate to do it, because I generally find Bruce Miles to be the best of the Cubs’ mainstream writers.

It’s been pretty clear since the middle of last summer that the Cubs were not going to offer arbitration to Harden, and this has been the subject of much consternation among some followers of the Cubs. Harden, a Type B free agent, made $7 million last year, and it’s possible that he and his agent would be seeking $10 million or more in arbitration. Blogs.

If it has been clear since mid-summer, the Cubs should have put on the full-court-press to move Harden when their chances in the NL Central (don’t get me started on the Wild Card – er, actually, I’ll get started in a few paragraphs) fizzled around the same time.

Further, where does that $10 million number come from? First of all, just because Harden would seek it doesn’t mean he’d get it. I’ve been seeking Jessica Simpson for years, and I still can’t get it (even after she … expanded). Harden would assuredly get a raise, but there is no reason to believe he would get a near 50% raise for barely topping 140 innings, posting an ERA over 4 and a .500 winning percentage.

If the Cubs offered arbitration to [Harden] (or to Johnson, who made $3 million), [he] would immediately accept, and the Cubs would be on the hook to pay out money they don’t have.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Is this based on some information to which you are privy that we all are not? I have read nothing – not one thing – that would indicate that Harden was a lock to accept arbitration. To the contrary, I’ve read multiple reports regarding other teams who are interested in signing Harden. Immediately accept? Without exploring those possibilities? Absurd.

Let’s see how it plays out with Harden. Teams figure to be very cautious about handing out a multiyear deal to a pitcher with a history of shoulder problems and to a guy who had to be held out of starts near the end of the year.

Ah, so if the gamble in not offering Harden arbitration happens to prove correct (i.e., Harden does not get a better deal than he would have by accepting arbitration with the Cubs), then Jim Hendry gets the credit. Fair enough. Except…

The other question I’ve been asked is why the Cubs didn’t trade Harden to Minnesota after the Twins claimed him on waivers in August. From what I’ve been told, there would not have been much in the way of prospects coming back, and the Cubs weren’t ready to quit on the season at that point.

Hendry was WRONG about that gamble! Jim Hendry gambled that Rich Harden’s presence in September would somehow catapult the Cubs over five other teams in the Wild Card race. Albert Pujols couldn’t have done that for the Cubs. And given that Harden ultimately started just three times in September, I’d say this decision was a colossal mistake. So where’s the blame for Hendry?

Not much in the way of prospects? That’s more than not much in the way of anything, no?

The Cubs would never come out and say a guy is a medical risk, but when they praise the pitching coach and trainer for getting the player ready to start 26 games, you can pretty much figure there could be trouble ahead. And what would people be saying if Harden were to blow out in spring training with the Cubs having to pay him $10 million to rehab?

This last point is Bruce’s best, but even it feels like it is lacking. Notably, unless the Cubs became aware of medical issues that precluded offering Harden arbitration only after the trade deadline, they can hardly now offer it as an excuse to having lost Harden for nothing. If the Cubs felt he was such a risk that they might end up paying him big money to rehab next year, that’s a reason to trade him when it should have been clear that the Cubs were realistically out of the race. The fact that Harden was ultimately shut down for the last few weeks of the season only reinforces this point. Are we to believe the Cubs felt it was necessary to Harden’s health – a guy that they knew they weren’t resigning and upon whom they’d pinned their Wild Card hopes – to shut him down, and yet the revelation that Harden had serious shoulder issues had only just dawned on them?

In the muddied mess of possible explanations for this turn of events, none cast the Cubs and Jim Hendry in a positive light. Trying to put together a grab bag of partial explanations, that, when taken together, could possibly explain how the combination of not trading Harden and then not offering him arbitration was not a comedy of errors is a mistake. Sometimes a spade is a spade.

  • jstraw

    I’m sorry but you can’t use the same, non-baseball sports metaphor in two sequential blog posts. It’s five yards and loss of down. You don’t want me to repeat that on the next post, do you? Because I will!

    • Ace

      Yeah, that’s embarrassing. I’m going to have to put on the full court press to do better next time.

  • KB

    Well-written post, Ace.
    I hadn’t even thought of many of the things you mentioned. I’ve never been a Hendry fan, but his problems, till now, never seemed to of the “Who’s minding the store?” variety.

    • Ace

      Thanks, Kabes. Earlier in his tenure, Jim Hendry was so good at making perceived good trades, and the Cubs were competitive (in large part due to increases in payroll that had nothing to do with Hendry’s ability), so he got a pass for a long time. Now that we’re really scrutinizing his decisions… they’re suspect. Again, and again.

  • DK

    There is no doubt that Hendry fucked up here.

  • coalminerd

    I definitely would prefer to have either (1) any prospects in exchange for Harden, or (2) a Harden like we’ve seen the last 2 years for between $7 and $10 million vs. having no Harden and nothing in return. And I do think Hendry is pretty much an idiot other than a couple of notable moves.

    However, I think there could have been another factor at play here — that the Cubs directly or indirectly were not ready to give up on the season given what was happening with the Ricketts sale. For the Cubs to have waved the white flag in August, the overall mood would have lost all hope, people would have stopped coming to Wrigley more than they did in September and the club could have lost more negotiating leverage in the difficult financing and terms discussions that were ongoing. Not that I think trading Harden would have killed the sale, but I think it’s safe to say that not trading him was maybe the easiest way to keep everything on track — not to introduce some new surprise emotional or financial element into the equation. There was enough stuff going on with that deal.

    In a sense, and this could have even been influenced by the Ricketts family (who knows), the new owner got to make the call on Harden (i.e., arbitration or no) vs. the old lame duck owner making the call for a few peanut prospects. In that sense, I guess I don’t blame Hendry b/c I bet some of this was coming from the top (old top or new top, not sure).

    • Ace

      Very interesting point, coal. Not one I’d considered. Creative. I like it.

      Howeva – I can’t see the trade of one ailing pitcher being a sufficient ding on the mood of the club/the fans/etc. to have any kind of noticeable impact on the perceived value of the Chicago Cubs franchise. A tiny, incremental impact? Maybe. But unless, as you suggest, the orders were coming directly from on high (and who knows, maybe they were), Jim Hendry bears the blame.

  • DB

    Agree, 110%. What’s really chapping my hide is why, if Hendry thought he wasn’t worth offering arbitration to NOW, he kept him off the trading block right before we called this season dead? Now, we don’t even get a sandwich pick! (I, however, am firmly in the camp of “KEEP Harden”.) Am I to expect that we’re going to plan on either Samardzija or Marshall as our fifth starter? Let me golf clap that idea…

    Yes, Harden is a risk, but one worth taking. Is anyone else on the market that’s as good as him? I don’t think so.

    Hendry is an idiot. Now that the pocketbook is closed, his a$$ is exposed.