Rich Harden and Jeremy Bonderman will both be available this winter looking for a new home, and will have to be pretty flexible about their price. While I wrote last week about how the Nationals should not be dumpster diving as much as they did under Jim Bowden, Harden and Bonderman offer a change from past pick-ups in that they are still relatively young and have power arms, they just need to put it together.
Rich Harden - Harden turns 29 this November, which may be surprising for all of those who remember as the up-and-coming fourth ace of the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000's. Harden has always had electric stuff but was rarely able to put a full season together. He made only 19 starts in 2005 after 31 in his 2004 rookie season, and continued to only start 13 games between 2006-2007. This infuriated A's fans because whenever Harden did pitch, he was a strikeout machine, constantly posting a strikeout per nine innings rate of above nine.
2008 seemed to be the season where Harden put it all together, finally at the age of 26. In 25 starts Harden went 10-2 with an astonishing 2.07 ERA and a K/9 ratio of 11.01. In 2009 Harden returned to the Cubs and had a strong, but not great, season. In 26 games he went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA and a 10.91 K/BB. However, in 2010 Harden fell apart, posting a 5-5 record with a 5.58 ERA for the Texas Rangers in 18 starts.
A quick look at his 2010 splits shows that he allowed the most fly balls in his career this season, giving up 51.2 percent balls in the air which didn't exactly help him at the Ballpark In Arlington. Most notably though, Harden's fastball, which sat in the mid-to-low 90's throughout his career, averaged only 90.5 miles per hour this season - and his slider, which has a career average of 85.4 miles per hour, only came in at 81.8 miles per hour in 2010. It is possible that Harden is experiencing a dead arm phase in his career, like we've seen from Tim Lincecum who no longer is the flame thrower he used to be. However, Lincecum adjusted seamlessly because of his plus-plus off speed pitches, so why hasn't Harden? The main difference is that Lincecum began throwing his fastball far less often, only using it to get quick strikes on the corners, where Harden throws it almost as much as he did when he was a rookie. If Harden can adapt to throwing his slider and changeup more often and effectively, he may be able to have a career resurgence. If the Nationals can get that for bottom dollar, it's clearly worth it.
Jeremy Bonderman - Bonderman was given a rough break to start his career, playing for the Detroit Tigers who lost 119 games in 2003, his rookie season. Despite working hard to fight off being the first 20 game loser in recent memory, Bonderman had about as good of a 6-19 season as you could possibly have, posting a 4.32 xFIP and earning 1.4 WAR. In 162 rinnings, the rookie had struck out 108 batters while walking only 58. Impressive. With a mid 90's fastball and a plus-plus slider everyone expected Bonderman to work his way out of 2003 to become a star for the Tigers. However, as the Tigers became good again, he fell in the shadows of Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers, and Nate Robinson as the club cruised to the World Series.
Bonderman continued to be, "almost there" throughout the 2000's, posting ERA's of 4.89, 4.57, 4.08, 5.01, and 4.29 between 2004-2008. His slider was dominant, and he was beginning to make less and less mistakes with his fastball. However, in 2008 Bonderman was done for the season in June due to a blood clot which he had to have emergency procedures on. In 2010, Bonderman's first full season back, the former ace went 8-10 with a 4.74 xFIP while striking out 112 and walking 58.
Bonderman doesn't have the upside that a Rich Harden does, but even if he produces the line he did last year he'll be a lot more reliable than most of the Nationals starters in 2010. Bonderman will be good for 25-30 starts and 170 innings, with an ERA around 4.5. A solid upgrade for the Nationals.