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Surprise positional outlook: No. 1 starter

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Our positional outlooks continue all week with the five starting spots. For the purposes of this assignment, we'll slot some guys in spots where they could end up. In fairness, Scott Feldman was the club's top starter last season, though Kevin Millwood was considered the No. 1 starter. But for this outlook, the No. 1 spot goes to Rich Harden. He's expected to seize that role this season. Feldman will be featured on Tuesday.

Part of general manager Jon Daniels' offseason work included trading Millwood to Baltimore to free up the money necessary to sign Harden, a free agent. The Rangers believe that Harden is worth what is $6.5 million in base salary in 2010 (he has some incentives) and a mutual option for 2011 at $11.5 million. Why? Because when Harden is healthy, he's shown ace-like stuff. He made 25 starts in 2008 between the Cubs and A's and was 10-2 with a 2.07 ERA. He made 26 starts last season and had a 4.09 ERA, but also 171 strikeouts in 141 innings.

The reason the signing is a big risk: Harden has made seven trips to the disabled list in the last five seasons. He's pitched more than 148 innings in a season only once. And that was 2004.

But Harden arrived in Surprise committed to showing he can become a durable starter. The Rangers certainly need that. How important is a true No. 1 starter? Well, there are certainly examples of teams that have made the postseason with an overall solid rotation, but no true ace. But, as Michael Lynch at ESPN Stats & Information points out, three of the last four AL West titles for the Angels were won with a starter that had a 3.50 ERA or lower and who pitched at least 175 innings. In the entire decade of the 2000s (2000-2009), the Rangers had only one pitcher accomplish that feat: Kenny Rogers in 2005.

I have a column online now that talks about Harden's health and his focus on decreasing his pitch count per inning. Because he's a big strikeout guy, he throws a lot of pitches. That can hurt his ability to go deeper into games. Of pitchers that threw at least 140 innings last season, Harden had the fifth-most pitches per inning at 17.7.

That's what you would expect from a strikeout pitcher. And he has sure had a bunch of those. Of the pitchers that threw at least 100 innings in 2009, no one had a higher strikeout rate per nine innings than Harden's 10.9. The list:

1. Rich Harden (10.9)

2. Tim Lincecum (10.4)

3. Justin Verlander (10.1)

4. Jon Lester (10.0)

5. Yovani Gallardo (9.9)

So Harden comes in with the expectation that he can be a stalwart in this rotation. He's worked hard this offseason (in Arizona, actually) with his conditioning to be in position to throw a bunch of innings at the top of the Rangers rotation this season.

Will he do it?