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I've had some time to digest the Rich Harden deal, and I think you can prematurely put this one in the win column for both teams. Cop out? you bet. Here's why. The Cubs are focused short term, the A's are focused longer term.
One of the unfortunate by-products of the Cubs sale is that no one in the organization has incentives to keep the franchise's long term prospects in mind. Any move that can maximize short term value for the Cubs is a positive with the current owner (the usual advocate of long term outcomes), the President, the General manager, the manager, and even most of the players.
It's a unique situation in Chicago. Sam Zell just wants every red cent he can scrape together via a sale. Crane Kenney and Jim Hendry are primarily concerned about next year's paycheck. In order to ensure they remain with the club through the coming ownership transition (See my Cubs Ownership Page), the team must reach the playoffs and go very deep. Even then, it's not ensured that they will both call Chicago home, but both become eminently more employable as baseball executives if the Cubs go deep in the playoffs this year. Kenney is also focused on maximizing the sale value of the Cubs as he's likely to try and stay with TribCo after the sale.
Lou Piniella, the manager, has already placed a time-frame on his retirement, so worrying about the Cubs' system depth is not on his radar. All Lou cares about is winning another ring or two in his last two remaining years. And finally, most all of the players have tremendous short term incentives because their contracts expire in the next few months to years.)
Now don't get me wrong, it's not bad that all of these short term incentives line up, and possibly it's what this club needs to overcome a century of losing, but viewing the team from this perspective answers the question of how both teams look so good coming away from this trade.
The Athletics, on the other hand, have a more typical short/long term incentive structure. They have a new/steady ownership group in place, they're working on a move to a new stadium, and their General Manager is not in danger of losing his job, and probably has 29 covert offers under the table if he ever gets fed up with Oakland's ridiculously low payroll framework. (I always get the feeling he finds the challenge of that restraint the most exciting part of his job.)
So, that brings us to the trade. For those who haven't heard, here's the deal. The Cubs get Rich Harden (RHP Starter) and Chad Gaudin (RHP Start/Relief) for Matt Murton (Righty Corner Outfielder), Sean Gallagher (RHP Starter), Eric Patterson (lefty 2B/OF), and Josh Donaldson (Catcher with a nose for OBP, but struggling in A Ball.)
The financial implications of the deal are a fairly sizable shift in payroll to the Cubs. Harden is owed approximately $2 mm for the remainder of this season (he's earning $4.5 mm this year) and the Cubs have a team option for $7 mm for next year. Contract details. The rest of the guys involved in this trade all make approximately the league minimum. The difference is that Gaudin is eligible for arbitration next year while Murton is the closest to arbitration among those headed to the A's. He's eligible following the 2009 season, and Gallagher and Patterson each have three complete years before becoming arbitration eligible.
Now, lets evaluate talent for talent. Who got the better end of this deal based solely on talent? You've got to go with the Cubs. Rich Harden is unquestionably one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Chad Gaudin becomes the sixth pitcher on the roster who should be starting ahead of Jason Marquis. Sean Gallagher is likely to be better than Gaudin in a year or two, but neither Murton nor Patterson project as stars and I'm ignoring Donaldson for now. Based purely on talent, I'd take the basket with the two guys the Cubs got over the basket with the three guys who are moving to Oakland.
Now, for the wild card, there's the pesky little problem that Rich Harden has a slightly better health history than Mark Prior. If Harden stays healthy, there's no question about who won this trade, but the real question is how healthy does Harden have to be for the Cubs to win? Well, the answer is pretty easy. He needs to be healthy from October 1, 2008 through November 1, 2008. If this is the case, the Cubs end 100 years of frustration, and Jim Hendry can officially claim he got the better of Billy Beane.
Long term: This deal has the potential to be phenomenal for the Cubs. If Harden can solve the health question, the Cubs have shown they will sign him to a long term contract at the end of 2009 (think Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, and Alfonso Soriano), and the Cubs will be trotting out a 1-2 combination of Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden for the next five or six years. Talent wise, Zambrano and Harden are Johnson & Schilling circa 2001, except Johnson & Schilling were old in 2001 while Zambrano and Harden are both well shy of their 30th birthdays.
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