The righthander will crack the Athletics' rotation sometime this year at age 21, which would be younger than Tim Hudson (23 in 1999) or Mark Mulder and Barry Zito (both 22 in 2000) were in their Oakland debuts. Last week Harden was promoted to Triple A Sacramento after retiring all 39 batters he faced—17K's—in two starts for Double A Midland ( Texas), where his fastball hit 99 mph. In his first game for Sacramento on Sunday he struck out eight in a 6-2 win.
Harden began the season at Midland even though he dominated there last year (102 strikeouts in 85? innings). Oakland is being cautious with Harden while lefthander John Halama, 31, keeps his rotation spot warm. Besides, there is a huge economic incentive for teams to give their top rookies even a few weeks in the minors at the start of a season: It can delay losing a player to free agency by a year. Mulder, for example, made his big league debut on April 18, leaving him only five service days short of free agency after the 2005 season.