"It has been frustrating not to be able to do some things," Harden said at his introductory press conference at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday morning. "In the past, it's bothered me. But I've learned to put it behind me, and I feel I have a good conditioning program to help me. There will always be questions, but I've used it to motivate me to work harder to have a bunch of healthy seasons."
The Rangers are hoping 2010 will be that season. They have signed Harden to a one-year contract with an option for 2011 in the hopes that Texas will finally be the place where he has an injury-free season.
If that happens, the Rangers believe he could be the dominating starter they need at the top of their rotation. Since 2003, Harden has struck out 9.35 batters per nine innings, the most by any Major League pitcher with at least 125 starts.
"You don't have to follow him closely to know he has a chance to be a dominating upper-end-of-the-rotation pitcher," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We know what he is capable of. He is the kind of pitcher that can flat-out shut down an opposing lineup."
The one significant hurdle is Harden has been on the disabled list seven times in the past five seasons. The biggest problem has been a fragile right shoulder that has required three separate trips to the disabled list. But there have also been elbow and back issues as well.
Harden has been searching for answers and believes he is getting there. He works with a private physiotherapist in Phoenix and has worked hard at tailoring his offseason and in-season workout programs to keep his shoulder strong. Most important has been his weight-training program. He backed off that in Oakland to try and protect the shoulder, and only found that caused more problems.
"I've tweaked it as I've gone along, added some things, subtracted some things, and I believe I've found something that works," Harden said. "I've had some injuries, but I've worked hard to put it behind me, now I can get out there and make 30 starts. I feel this is a good fit for me."
The Rangers snatched him away from the Mariners, who were also pushing hard to sign Harden.
"I've spent a lot of time playing against these guys while I was playing in Oakland," Harden said. "I like the way they go out and play hard. Every day they play their hearts out. They showed last year they could be competitive. This is a good young team that can win this division."
The Rangers will pay him $6.5 million in a base salary for 2010, plus $2.5 million in incentives. He gets $500,000 more if he pitches 155 innings and another $500,000 each at 165, 175, 185 and 195 innings. There is a mutual option for 2011 worth $11 million with a $1 million buyout. Both the Rangers and Harden have the right to turn down the option for 2011 and have him become a free agent.
"Every year is important for me, whether it is a one-year deal or a four-year deal," Harden said. "Either way I want to go out there and pitch 200 innings and not give up a run. I'm definitely hard on myself and expect a lot. I want to have a great season here and be here for more than one year."
At Friday's press conference, Harden, 27, sat next to a pitcher who had a similar rough start to his career. Nolan Ryan, who always carried high expectations, was 29-38 with a 3.58 ERA through his first six seasons in the Major Leagues. It was only after he was traded from the Mets to the Angels before the 1972 season that Ryan started soaring as a Hall of Fame pitcher and baseball's all-time strikeout leader.
"If you look at his last two years, they have probably been his most productive years," Ryan said of Harden. "Experience is a good teacher, and at some point in your career you learn to focus on what's important and what you need to do to stay healthy and competitive. We're very excited about the fact that we feel the best years of his career are ahead of him."
Harden was 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA in 26 games and 141 innings for the Cubs in 2009 and 10-2 with a 2.07 ERA in 25 games and 148 innings for the Athletics and Cubs in '08. He has not pitched more than 150 innings since his second season in the Majors in '04, when he was 11-7 with a 3.99 ERA in a career-high 31 starts and 189 2/3 innings with the Athletics.
"My ultimate goal is to make 30 starts and pitch 200 innings," Harden said. "I expect that out of myself every year and I feel I'm close to doing that."