A Hard-en Decision To Make? Not Really. Cubs Should Bring Back Rich Harden

Not bringing back Rich Harden could be a disaster for the 2010 Cubs.

Whoever is calling the shots for the Chicago Cubs this offseason has a lot of decisions to make as they attempt to right the ship of a disastrous season.

Some of those decisions will be easy.  The only thing that would make me happier than saying goodbye to Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman and Aaron Miles would have been not having to say "hello" to them in the first place.

But one of the most daunting questins for the 2010 Cubs will be whether or not to bring back starter Rich Harden.

The Cubs fleeced Oakland A's GM Billy Beane for a year-and-a-half of Harden's services in exchange for Sean Gallagher, Eric Patterson and Matt Murton.  Not a steal?  Take into consideration that Gallagher is now property of the San Diego Padres (via the Scott Hairston deal), Murton was recently DFA'd in Colorado and Patterson is looking more like his brother while playing in Oakland.

Since joining the Cubs, Harden owns a 13-8 record in 34 starts.  Not all too impressive, but that's where the peripherals come into play.  Since coming to the NL, Harden has posted a 3.18 earned run average, 1.149 WHIP, averages 10.7 Ks per nine innings and has racked up 232 strikeouts in 195 innings.

When healthy, Harden is a top-of-the-rotation starter who has some of the most electric stuff in all of baseball.  At the ripe-ol'-age of 27, Harden is just beginning to reach his peak.  And that is why he will be the most sought-after free agent starter on the market this offseason.

It's a class that is headlined by John Lackey, Jason Marquis and a back of back-end guys -- unless starters like Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee, Tim Hudson or Brandon Webb have club options waved and buyouts exercised.

Seriously, Jason Marquis heading any class that doesn't involve safety scissors is not a bright class at all.

Tribune scribe Paul Sullivan thinks Harden can get $60 million in the open market, while ESPN's Buster Olney doesn't believe (subscription required) the oft-injured starter will make more than $20 million this offseason.

Either way, seems like a hefty sum for a player some would consider a better version of Mark Prior.  But before you write off Harden's return, think about this.

Harden has been the Cubs' best starter in the second half.  He's got a 3-1 record in eight starts, but has whiffed 60 batters in 50 innings and limited opponents to a .151 batting average.  And despite his own health issues, he has made one more start than Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano this season.

If that doesn't tip the scales in Harden's favor, this should.

Take into consideration what the Cubs could bring back next year if they make the right decision.  Harden, Zambrano and Lilly at the top of the rotation is as good as any rotation in the National League.  

But if Harden doesn't return.

The Cubs will be relying heavily on Ryan Dempster to return to the form that helped fool Jim Hendry into inking him to an extension that will pay Demp $40 million over the next three seasons.  Next in line is Randy Wells (9-6, 2.84 ERA), who has shown that he can be a competitive starter when he's not facing the Washington Nationals, and is an excellent candidate for a sophomore slump as he approaches career highs in innings pitched.  If all else fails, the Cubs will round out the rotation with Tom Gorzelanny and/or Sean Marshall.

Not necessarily the kind of staff primed for a championship run.

If the Cubs decide to not bring back Harden, it will be eerily similar to a decision that past regimes have made.  And the last thing the Ricketts clan wants to do is awaken the echoes of failed Tribune lore.

Unless, of course, they're trying to make the team less appealing so they can move them to Florida.

Hey, has anyone seen Rachel Phelps recently?