Once top starters, Harden, Feldman on postseason bubble
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
OAKLAND -- When Rich Harden is being interviewed, he is almost always standing erect in front of his locker, arms folded across his chest and a pleasant, welcoming smile on his face.
Win or lose, he answers questions in the same calm, soft, polite voice, occasionally punctuating his short, direct answers with a shrug of the shoulders. He is never demonstrative.
At this point of the season, he has also become almost invisible. He seems to prefer it that way. His time with the Rangers is coming to a close and he is ready to slip away quietly in the night.
"I'm doing well ... feeling well," Harden said when asked about his situation. "It's all right. There's not much to say. I really don't have anything for you."
Scott Feldman was slightly more expansive when asked how he was doing these days.
"It's all right," Feldman said Thursday afternoon before the Rangers' 5-0 loss to Oakland. "I just wish I was contributing to the team a little more ... a lot more. I'm just trying to stay ready. If they need me, I'm more than ready. I'd be happy to contribute in some way."
The Rangers haven't asked much from him. He pitched two innings in relief of Cliff Lee on Thursday night, his first appearance in two weeks. Harden has not pitched since Sept. 11.
Feldman has pitched three times in September and Harden twice, while every other reliever has pitched at least five times. Pedro Strop, a right-hander who spent most of the season in the Minors, has made six appearances.
The Rangers are on the verge of going to the playoffs, but -- in a strange twist of fate -- they likely won't be taking the two pitchers who were No. 1 and No. 2 in their rotation at the beginning of the season. Texas expected to be playoff contenders, but nobody thought Harden and Feldman would be all but forgotten as the season came to a conclusion.
"We talked about our pitching depth at the beginning of the year," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We were counting on our depth coming into play, picking up the back spots of the rotation. The way it worked out -- in baseball you never know what's going to happen. The way it played out, our depth really propped up the front end."
Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson will be the Rangers' top two starters in the playoffs. Harden and Feldman are not expected to be on the postseason roster.
"I don't even know how the postseason roster works," Feldman said. "Maybe if I finish up strong they'll have confidence in me. I'm not worried about that. I'm just trying to be ready when they need me."
Scott Feldman 2009 vs. 2010
Feldman was the Rangers' Opening Day starter after winning 17 games in 2009, and the talk in Spring Training was about what he would do to build on that. Instead, he is 7-10 with a 5.45 ERA in 21 starts and seven relief appearances. He has made just one spot start since being taken out of the rotation on July 24.
"I was not expecting this," Feldman said. "I was expecting to be on a good team ... that part has been great. But I didn't expect to be marinating in the bullpen and not pitching. That's obviously disappointing. There's still time left. I can always end on a good note."
Feldman had a breakthrough season last year because he could split the plate with a cut fastball that broke in hard against left-handed hitters and a sinker that dropped the other way from them. Whether facing a left-handed or right-handed hitter, Feldman had two different fastballs that could break in opposite directions.
Both pitches have been missing in action this season, especially the cut fastball. Because of that pitch, left-handed hitters batted .226 off him last year. This season, without an effective cut fastball, left-handers are hitting .305. He has been basically relying on a straight fastball, a mediocre changeup and a breaking ball that was never one of his best pitches.
"That's not a good repertoire to get a guy out with," Feldman admitted.
Harden may have been the victim of extreme high expectations. The Rangers, operating under severe financial constraints, signed him to a one-year, $7.5 million contract after he went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA in 26 starts with the Cubs. He also had 171 strikeouts with 67 walks in 141 innings. Throughout his career, only injuries had kept him from being one of the top pitchers in the game.
Rich Harden 2009 vs. 2010
The Rangers believed if they could keep him healthy, they could land a dominating starter at a bargain price. He was at the top of their offseason shopping list. Club president Nolan Ryan was an especially vocal advocate. They signed him, but the results have not been what they expected.
"I don't know ... it wasn't a lack of effort," Daniels said. "Maybe a combination of health issues, general inconsistency and a lack of command. We knew it was kind of a high-risk/reward signing. He's capable of more. It didn't pan out the way anyone predicted.
Harden is 5-5 with a 5.42 ERA in 17 starts and two relief appearances. He has pitched 88 innings -- the Rangers were hoping for 200 -- and struck out 73 while walking 59. He inexplicably didn't throw as hard as advertised -- which caused much consternation -- and definitely threw too many pitches.
His 19.3 pitches per inning are the highest by any Major League pitcher with at least 80 innings pitched. So are his 6.03 walks per nine innings. He has been in and out of the rotation all season.
Harden was 2-1 with a 3.52 ERA in his first six starts after pitching seven scoreless innings in a 4-2 victory over the Athletics on May 3. Over his next seven starts, he had a 7.60 ERA and the Rangers finally decided they had enough. After allowing six runs in six innings in a 6-2 loss to the Brewers on June 11, Harden was dubiously placed on the disabled list with a strained lower back muscle.
The injury was never considered serious. If his ERA and walk totals were far less than what they were, he probably would have pitched through it.
Or, more pointedly, the Rangers would have given him the opportunity to work through it.
Harden didn't return until July 31. He started against the Angels and was outstanding, allowing one run in seven innings in a 2-1 victory. It is as important a victory as the Rangers have had all season. Otherwise, the Rangers would have been swept in a three-game series in Anaheim at a critical juncture in the season. On that night, at least, he rewarded their faith.
But Harden lasted just 2 1/3 innings in his next start -- a 6-2 loss to Oakland -- and went back on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. This time he stayed two weeks. When he returned, Harden pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 4-0 victory over the Twins, then lasted 4 1/3 innings in a 5-0 loss to the Athletics.
After that, the Rangers put him in the bullpen, thinking that might be a better option. They wanted Derek Holland instead. Harden accepted the assignment stoically. He has been stoic about all things.
Asked if he was frustrated, disappointed -- anything -- Harden said simply, "A little bit of everything."
There is a mutual option on his services for 2011. The salary is $11 million and either side can decline it. There is no doubt about the Rangers declining it. Harden knows full well he will not be back in Texas, but wants to find a chance to pitch somewhere next season.
"I don't know," Harden said. "I'll think about it when the offseason comes and deal with it then."
Feldman can be back. The Rangers last offseason rewarded his 17-win season with a two-year, $11.5 million contract extension through 2012. He'll make $4.4 million in '11 and $6.5 million in '12. There is a $600,000 buyout on a $9.25 million salary in '13.
"We signed Scott not because of one year," Daniels said. "We believe in the player and continue to believe in him as an athlete and as a person. We expect him to bounce back and have a good year for us next year."
If he regains command of his sinker and cutter, that could certainly be the case. He was the Rangers' Pitcher of the Year in 2009 because of those two pitches.
"I'm just hoping to finish up well," Feldman said. "I'll worry about that after the season and show up ready in Spring Training."
If there is a common denominator between the two, it is in the gracious, dignified manner in which they are handling the situation. They decline the chance to cause a disturbance in the Rangers' pursuit of a division title. They decline to be selfish. They offer no excuses or point blame elsewhere.
It appears that the Rangers' top two starters at the beginning of the season will exit quietly at the end.