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Moves by Texas Rangers at Winter Meetings Has Our Baseball Weenie Harden-ing

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Despite the financial restraints stemming from the team's unresolved ownership situation, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels skillfully inked the most dominant free-agent starter at this week's Winter Meetings in Indianapolis without adding payroll. By dealing starting pitcher Kevin Millwood to the Baltimore Orioles for relievers Chris Ray and Benjamin Snyder, Daniels freed up enough dough to sign former Oakland A's and Chicago Cubs right-hander Rich Harden to a one-year contract with a mutual option for 2011.

Harden's deal was finalized after the results of his physical, which took place Thursday in Arlington. Daniels is also reportedly close to a trade with the Boston Red Sox for Mike Lowell, in which the Rangers would send catching prospect Max Ramirez and pay approximately $3 million of Lowell's $12 million contract for 2010, the final year of the three-year, $37.5 million deal he signed in November 2007.

Daniels could have avoided dealing Millwood as he had a clause in his contract stipulating that he pitch in 180 innings this season to trigger his $12 million salary in '10, or else he'd become a free agent. After Millwood surrendered five earned runs at home against the Seattle Mariners on September 12 for the fourth time in his last five starts, he sat at 175 2/3 innings pitched, and chatter began about possibly shutting him down for the season and avoiding his costly contract obligation for '10.

Even though it would appear to have been prudent to do so given Daniels' preference to rid the team of Millwood and his contract this offseason, the Rangers were 79-61 at the time and battling for a playoff spot. The team eventually fell apart, losing 14 of its final 22 games to finish the season, but Millwood won three of those games -- two 7-inning performances followed by a 9-inning, 10-strikeout game in his final start of the season -- so Daniels shouldn't be second guessed for sticking with Millwood down the stretch.

Although he finished the year as the team's second best starter, posting his best ERA (3.67) since 2005 and the fourth lowest in his career, Millwood set a career high with 71 walks and a career low with 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests why Daniels had plans on upgrading, especially since Millwood doesn't fit into the Rangers' long-term plans.

In Rich Harden, Daniels definitely found an upgrade. If Harden, who turned 28 on November 30, met the criteria (100 career decisions and 1,000 innings pitched), he'd place sixth on the all-time list of strikeouts per nine innings at 9.35, pushing Sandy Koufax to seventh. You read that right. Sandy freggin' Koufax. (Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Trevor Hoffman are the top five.)

When he's healthy, which we'll get into shortly, Harden's one of the most dominating right-handers out there, featuring a 90-94 mph fastball with life that can touch 96, a nasty changeup with splitter-like action and a hard curveball that looks like a slider. He has a 50-29 career record, 3.39 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 783 strikeouts in 753 2/3 innings in seven seasons with the A's and Cubs.

Although Harden's stats were mediocre this season with Chicago (9-9 record, 4.09 ERA and 1.34 WHIP), he was outstanding in 2008, posting a 10-2 record in 25 combined starts with a 2.07 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 181 strikeouts in 148 innings while splitting time with both Chicago and Oakland. He's capable of being the ace that Millwood was signed to be but never turned out to be. Yet one major obstacle stands in Harden's way: staying healthy.

There is no starter on the free-agent market that matches Harden in terms of raw talent, but Texas snagged him at a bargain rate because of his lengthy history in the trainer's room. Harden has managed only one season with more than 30 starts (2004) because of numerous injuries to his back and shoulders.

Here's what we found fishing around for his injury history: a strained left oblique muscle in May 2005, a strained back muscle in September '05, surgery to reattach the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in October '05, a torn back muscle in May '06, a sprained ligament in his elbow in June '06, shoulder tightness throughout the summer of '07, biceps tendonitis in September '07, a strained back muscle in April '08, dead arm in July '08, arm discomfort at the end of '08, a small tear in his shoulder joint prior to Spring Training in '09, a mid-back strain in May '09 and arm fatigue that ended his '09 season.

That's some pretty scary shit. You get the feeling he could pop his shoulder or strain his back opening a bag of sunflower seeds, which is why he signed for $6.5 million plus an incentive package that could add another $2.5 million to the deal -- a paltry deal for someone of his skill set. There's also an $11 million mutual option for 2011, and if either or side balks at accepting it, there's a $1 million buyout.

It's a risk no doubt, but a calculated one. Millwood had four years to prove he could anchor this staff, and he failed. Daniels, again, having to work with the payroll he has, essentially swapped out Millwood for Harden, a younger player with tremendous upside. If he can stay healthy, he could easily give the Rangers a true ace to help contend in a winnable AL West. If he doesn't, it was only a one-year commitment.

In dealing Millwood, the Rangers agreed to pay $3 million of his $12 million salary and received relievers Chris Ray and Benjamin Snyder from Baltimore. The $9 million in savings went to signing Harden ($6.5 million), with Ray and Snyder likely to make less than $1.5 million combined, leaving approximately a million bucks to spend on Harden's buyout if needed.

Ray was an effective reliever for the Orioles prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the entire 2008 season. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 41 games as a rookie in '06 and a 2.73 ERA with 33 saves in '07. However, Ray struggled in his comeback from surgery this year with a troublesome 7.27 ERA in 46 games for the O's.

Snyder, taken in the Rule 5 Draft at the end of the Winter Meetings, is a southpaw from the Giants organization. He was converted into a reliever this year after spending several as a starter and responded well with a 2.88 ERA in 34 games. He's likely insurance in case C.J. Wilson is able to win a job in the starting rotation, which would create the need for a lefty in the pen.

Both relievers are gambles, but Daniels appears to be ensuring that he has plenty of options heading into Spring Training. Neither one will be counted on as a major piece of the puzzle next year, but with not only Wilson but Neftali Feliz competing for a rotation gig, the pen needs as much depth as possible to brace for the departure of one or both of the Rangers' best late-inning pitchers.

With the rotation apparently set -- Harden and Scott Feldman at No.'s 1 and 2, followed by three from a group of Feliz, Wilson, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Brandon McCarthy and Matt Harrison (sorry, Dustin Nippert and Doug Mathis) -- Daniels set his sights on replacing Marlon Byrd's right-handed bat in the lineup. (By the way, the rotation should be Harden, Feldman, Hunter, McCarthy and Feliz.)

Enter Mike Lowell, who won't cost as much as Byrd and won't require a long-term commitment. Make no mistake, Byrd is younger, less likely to get hurt and a better defender, but Lowell could easily match or surpass Byrd's production at the plate next year, especially if he can stay healthy by playing DH most of the year.

Byrd, in a career year, hit .283 with 20 homers and 89 RBI in 146 games this season with the Rangers. Lowell, in an injury-plagued down year for him, hit .290 with 17 home runs and 75 RBI in 119 games for Boston in '09 after a similar .274-17-73 '08 season in which he only played 113 games. This, of course, followed the '07 season when he had career highs with a .324 batting average and 120 RBI and won the World Series MVP.

And the contract situation is apparently the Millwood's in reverse. The Rangers take on only $3 million (about what Byrd made this season), while Boston absorbs $9 million and receives Max Ramirez, who Daniels got back in return for Kenny Lofton near the trade deadline in 2007. Once a top Rangers' prospect, Ramirez is expendable.

He turned 25 in October, but Ramirez regressed this season at Triple-A Oklahoma, hitting just .234-5-34 in 76 games as a catcher and DH. If he was part of the Rangers' plans, he would have been considered as a right-handed bat to replace Byrd, but he wasn't. If he was part of the team's plans, he would have been considered as a replacement for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who re-injured his surgically-repaired right shoulder in the Dominican Winter League, but he wasn't.

Daniels has been savvy in his ability to improve the club by not adding payroll. By dealing Millwood, he nabbed a potential ace and two relievers, and by going after Lowell instead of Byrd, he's not tied into a long-term contract at a higher price for a guy who could prove to be the next Gary Matthews Jr. Plus, once Byrd signs elsewhere, Texas gets a first round supplemental draft pick as compensation, along with the one they received when Ivan Rodriguez signed his two-year deal with the Nationals.

So what's left for the Rangers? Ownership should be settled soon, with former agent Dennis Gilbert emerging as the favorite to take over the team, leaving Pittsburgh sports lawyer Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan out in the cold. Obviously, Ryan's alignment with Greenberg is expected to prompt Gilbert to find a new team president, which will hurt the club as Ryan's presence has been well-received by players and staff.

Until Daniels knows whether his budget will increase, he'll continue to bargain shop for more relief help -- Texas has been linked to J.J. Putz, Brett Myers and Darren Oliver -- and a veteran catcher in case Salty can't come back from his injury. Jason Kendall, Yorvit Torrealba and former Rangers catcher Rod Barajas have been rumored as players that Texas has some interest in signing.

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