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Kneejerking Rangers Fans and the Rich Harden Situation

16 games into the season, and we are already having folks suggest that the Rangers need to drop Rich Harden from the rotation to make room for Derek Holland, who is pitching on the same schedule as Harden at AAA and who is tearing it up in the early going.

This is classic early-season kneejerking, fueled in particular by the fact that Holland is a terrific prospect who showed flashes of brilliance in 2009, and the fact that Harden is a newcomer to the team. 

I can't imagine that fans would be clamoring for the Rangers to cut bait with Harden this soon if he's posted an ERA of around 3.00 over 51 starts the last two years in Texas.  There'd be more emotionally invested with Harden, we'd be more patient, having seen first hand what he is capable of, and the natural reaction would be to say to give him time, he's going to bounce out of it.

But because Harden's performance so far this season is it, as far as the Rangers go, because this four start stretch is the entirety of his body of work as a Ranger, fans seem more inclined to write him off.  Stick him in the bullpen, put him on the disabled list with a made up injury, release doesn't matter what, just don't let him pitch any more.  Because four starts is more than enough time to determine, apparently, that Harden can't contribute.

No question, Harden has been bad so far this year.  Yes, he's average 10 Ks per 9, but he's also averaging 9 walks per 9, and his FIP and xFIP are both in the 6.50 range.  Opposing hitters aren't getting good wood on him -- he's allowed a 12.5% line drive rate so far -- but then, they don't have to if he's going to average a walk per inning.

Clearly, this can't continue.  If Harden continues averaging less than 5 innings per start, continues walking a batter per inning and taxing the Ranger bullpen, something will have to be done.

But four games into the season is way too early to be making those decisions.

Harden was brought here because the Rangers (along with several other teams that pursued him) viewed him as a potential top of the rotation starter with durability issues.  If, four games into the season, you are willing to say definitively that he's not good enough to be in the rotation and Derek Holland should be up here instead, that Holland has a better chance of being an above-average starter in 2010 than Harden does, then you probably have to take a real hard look at the decision-makers for this team. 

Because if you move Kevin Millwood and pay a good chunk of his salary to clear out room so you can make Harden your team's big offseason addition, and also you decide that Holland shouldn't be in the rotation out of spring training, and on April 24 you're ready to junk that plan and want Harden gone and Holland in the rotation after all, then the people who are running this thing probably don't know what the hell they are doing.

If this is just fueled by Holland, and the feeling that he's so dominant that he needs to be in the majors, then the next question is, should Harden be the one to go?  Are you that confident that Matt Harrison, who doesn't have a track record of success in the majors, and who is sporting a 5.96 FIP so far in 2010, isn't a better option to be dropped?  Particularly given that Harrison can be optioned and continue starting in AAA, whereas any move you make with Harden is going to be more dramatic and be harder to reverse.

There's one other thing to keep in mind...what sort of message does it say to future free agents if, four starts into the season, Rich Harden gets dropped from the rotation?  A guy who was sought by numerous teams this offseason, who made a commitment to the Rangers even though there were situations out there where he could have made more money or pitched in a more pitcher-friendly environment with a better defense behind him...what does it say to the rest of the league if you're ready to pull the trigger on him this early on? 

If you're on board with a move like that, then you should never, ever again complain when a free agent spurns the Rangers to go sign elsewhere, particularly on a short-term deal.  Because dumping Harden now sends a message that the Rangers are a place where you better hit the ground running and produce at a high level immediately, because if you don't, you're going to be shelved and end up with a lost season, rather than being given a reasonable opportunity to work through your struggles.