07/08/08 10:27 PM ET
Cubs are 'armed' and dangerous
Chicago fires back, answers Milwaukee with Harden trade
The battle lines have been drawn, somewhere along Lake Michigan near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. But this is not going to be your typical border war. The Brewers and the Cubs both have their eyes on a greater prize beyond the National League Central Division crown.
The Brewers added Sabathia and the Cubs countered a day later with Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin, making it clear these two franchises are going for a World Series this year.
Both have called in the big guns for what should be quite a battle between now and October, when the winner of this arms race will likely be determined.
A day after Brewers GM Doug Melvin acquired the best left-handed starter on the market in Sabathia, Cubs GM Jim Hendry responded by acquiring arguably the best right-handed pitcher available in Harden, along with a very good right-hander in Chad Gaudin.
Harden's doctor visits probably maxed out his deductible months ago, but he's healthy now and pitching like the ace he's shown he can be in the past. After six trips to the disabled list in as many years, Harden's right shoulder appears to be ready to shoulder his share of the load the rest of the way.
Gaudin, 5-3 with a 3.59 ERA in 26 games including six starts, was a starter last season when he went 11-13 with a 4.42 ERA.
History has shown you can never have too many arms, but with Harden and Gaudin joining Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Jason Marquis, Carlos Marmol, Bob Howry, Kerry Wood, Michael Wuertz and Jon Lieber, the Cubs might be ready to test that theory.
History has also shown it's never wise to grade a trade made by Oakland GM Billy Beane until an appreciable amount of time has passed, but this one looks like a win for Hendry and the Cubs.
The price tag Hendry gave up, including right-hander Sean Gallagher, outfielder Matt Murton, infielder Eric Patterson and catcher Josh Donaldson, did not disrupt the core of this year's team or significantly hamstring the future. There's undoubted potential in that quartet -- if Beane wants them, you can certainly bank on that -- but none were going to be difference makers this year, and opinion is mixed on how much of a contribution could be expected in the future.
Financially, the payroll addition is negligible. Harden is making $4.75 million this year plus a club option for 2009 worth $7 million, with no buyout. Gaudin is a bargain at $1.775 million.
Gallagher, for all his potential, couldn't be a deal killer, at least not for Hendry. Not with the playoffs at stake. Besides, the team is for sale, and who knows what changes the new ownership might make. With the future uncertain and a team that could win it all this year, there was no compelling reason for Hendry not to make this deal and plenty of reasons to get it done.
Melvin upping the stakes with the Sabathia trade was just one more reason to pull the trigger, though the Cubs GM insisted this trade was not in reaction to the one Melvin made on Monday.
Whatever the motivation, the bottom line is this deal will help the Cubs in their fight to hold off an improved Milwaukee team that was playing excellent ball even before Sabathia arrived at Miller Park on Monday.
Just as the Brewers have their dominating duo of Ben Sheets and Sabathia, the Cubs can counter with their pair of aces in Zambrano and Harden.
The Cubs need just two things from Harden. They need him to stay healthy and they need him to continue to pitch like he has for the A's this year.
The 26-year-old is 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 starts, with 92 strikeouts in 77.0 innings. His ERA would be ranked second only to now former teammate, Oakland's Justin Duchscherer (1.98) in the American League, but Harden is just shy of the innings necessary to qualify. He leads the Majors with 10.75 strikeouts per nine innings.
Harden not only provides top-of-the-line depth in case closer-turned-starter Dempster comes up with a tired arm or one of the other starters runs out of gas come Labor Day, as Marquis has a time or two in the past. In Harden and the underrated Gaudin, the Cubs have two more potent options to use against some of the big right-handed bats on the Brewers like Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Mike Cameron, J.J. Hardy, Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks.
Two deals in as many days have made these two Central powers even more powerful. No disrespect to the Cardinals, but the stakes have been raised and barring a return of some of the St. Louis aces on the disabled list, the Cards figure to have a hard time keeping pace. The Pirates, Reds and Astros, if they weren't sellers before, should probably consider that course now.
The Brewers and Cubs have taken their best shots on the trade market. From here on they'll take it to the field.
It should be quite a battle.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.