Cubs decided risk worth the possible reward

So who's going to get traded to the NL Central on Wednesday? Johan Santana? Roy Halladay? Christy Mathewson?

OK, actually none of the above. But Rich Harden's trade to the Cubs on Tuesday proves that, all of a sudden, all roads in this sport really do lead to the Central time zone.

Cubs GM Jim Hendry was assuring everybody but Mike Ditka on Tuesday that it was just an astonishing coincidence that his team ace-napped Harden from Oakland one day after the Brewers wrested CC Sabathia from Cleveland.

Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. Doesn't really matter now anyway. The Cubs have had their eye on this guy for weeks. Tuesday, they found a way to reel him in. And all of a sudden, the NL Central race has just gotten so hot you shouldn't be touching it without a pot holder.

Just as Sabathia doesn't guarantee that the Brewers are going to rediscover the joys of champagne and ticker tape, however, Harden's arrival at Wrigley Field doesn't guarantee the Cubs are going to be obliterating any century-old hexes themselves. (Not that anybody should confide that to the goat population of Illinois.)

But one thing the Cubs know -- one thing everyone in baseball knows -- is this: When you get Harden to the mound in one piece, he's as dominating a starting pitcher as you can locate on this planet.

Since May 11, the day Harden came off the disabled list, he's tied for the major league lead in strikeouts, with 77. Guess which pitcher he's tied with?

Sabathia. Of course.

Hey, you were expecting maybe Justin Germano?

But the bigger news was over in a different column on Harden's stat sheet -- the all-important Games Started column.

That's because he has made it through 11 starts in a row over the past two months without missing a single turn. And that, unfortunately, has been a phenomenon no one has seen much. Kind of like Comet Kohoutek.

It was the first time Harden had made that many starts in succession since 2005. And it's that injury history that already is making those ever-edgy North Siders nervous, after way too many injury-rehab updates on their previous saviors, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the past few years.

In fact, one baseball man called Oakland's decision to trade Harden now -- while he's pitching great and the A's are still in a race -- a "serious red flag." Meanwhile, in a potentially related development, a scout we surveyed reported that Harden's velocity hasn't been quite the same in his most recent couple of starts, since his eight-inning, 11-strikeout two-hitter against the Phillies on June 26.

But the Cubs have watched every pitch he has thrown for weeks. They saw him hit 96 mph on the gun Sunday with their own eyes. So clearly, they'll take their chances on the odds of getting him out there 14 or 15 times between now and Sept. 28.

True, Harden comes with no get-your-four-trade-chips-back health guarantees. But unlike Sabathia, he's also not a rental. The Cubs get to keep him for a year and a half. Plus, they add very useful Chad Gaudin to their bullpen -- and, potentially, to their rotation in case of (a) emergency, (b) a Harden health mishap and/or (c) a patience meltdown by Lou Piniella with, say, Jason Marquis.

"The Cubs," one scout said Tuesday night, "have the best rotation in the league right now" -- CC in Cheesehead Town or no CC in Cheesehead Town.

The Cubs, incidentally, made their own run at Sabathia. But they didn't match up with Cleveland because the Indians were looking for a young, big-league-ready thumper. Oakland, on the other hand, wanted a young starting pitcher it could plug into its rotation immediately. And the Cubs had Sean Gallagher, ready to package.

Gallagher might not be a pitcher with Harden's star power. But he's exactly what Billy Beane was looking for, said an official of one team -- "a major-league-ready starter who can go straight into their rotation right now but who they get as a 'zero-plus' player. He can pitch for them for 2 1/2 years before he can even go to arbitration."

The rest of the package Oakland got seems devoid of centerpiece players. But it's packed with inventory pieces who should all play in the big leagues.

Matt Murton projects as a third or fourth outfielder whom the A's have liked for years and who "really needs a change of scenery," one NL exec said. Eric Patterson can serve as second-base insurance if Oakland can't re-sign Mark Ellis or as an athletic super-utility type player who can play all over the infield and outfield. And Josh Donaldson is a count-working catching prospect who had a .460 on-base percentage in rookie ball last year, even though he has scuffled in Peoria this year.

Asked Tuesday whether the A's got enough for one of the most overpowering pitchers in baseball, one scout chuckled: "For a guy who might break down tomorrow? Yeah."

But the Cubs understood that, too. Understood exactly what they were dealing for in Harden. He might miss a turn or two. Or 10. But at this point in the life of their quasi-tragic franchise, they weren't interested in playing it safe. Not anymore.

They were interested in dealing for an arm with a chance to change games and rewrite their history. Well, they got one. We'll now authorize the entire population of the North Side to begin holding its breath on that. The good news is, you can all resume inhaling again in a mere 3 1/2 months.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.