FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After all the injuries he's endured throughout his career, no one would've blamed Rich Harden for deciding to hang it up after requiring season-ending shoulder surgery last January.
But the thought never even crossed Harden's mind, as he said his right shoulder had been bothering him for years and the thought of pitching with a healthy shoulder was too tempting to pass up.
So Harden, who has spent time on the disabled list 10 times with various injuries over the past nine seasons, decided to sign a Minor League deal with the Twins this offseason to give it another shot after starting his rehab program in July under the guidance of Dr. Lewis Yocum in Tempe, Ariz.
And with the Twins looking to improve their staff after finishing with the third-worst ERA in baseball last season, Harden is an intriguing option to join the rotation or even pitch out of the bullpen. But as always, it'll depend on if he can stay on the field.
"I've been dealing with this shoulder issue for five years, I hurt it back in '07, so it's a grind," said Harden, who initially went on the disabled list in '07 with shoulder impingement before finally undergoing surgery to fix a torn capsule last January. "What I was able to accomplish when it was in rough shape and not healthy, I just want to see if I can get past that. It's just been a rough-go so I want to get back out there."
Harden showed positive signs by throwing his first official bullpen session of Spring Training on Wednesday without any issues, and it was the eighth time he's thrown off the mound since the surgery. He's currently scheduled to be on the same throwing program as the rest of the pitchers in camp but said he could alter it if he feels any discomfort.
The Twins still haven't decided whether they'll stretch him out to be a starter or use him as a reliever, though, as they plan on seeing how his shoulder responds this spring.
He's been a starter throughout his big league career, making 160 starts and 10 relief appearances in parts of nine seasons with the A's, Cubs and Rangers.
"We'll go by how he feels," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "The big thing with pitching is it's all progression."
Harden knows plenty about progression, as it's a term that's been thrown about while he's rehabbed from nearly every injury imaginable for a pitcher.
The list is nearly endless, as he first strained his oblique in '05, before undergoing labrum surgery on his left shoulder later that year. He also sprained his right ulnar collateral ligament in '06 that caused him to be placed on the 60-day DL before sustaining shoulder injuries every year from 2007-11 until undergoing surgery in '12. He also strained his lower back in '06 and in '09 before straining his left hip in '10.
But along the way, Harden has been an effective starting pitcher, with a career 3.76 ERA and an impressive 949 strikeouts in 928 1/3 innings.
And with contact-heavy pitchers such as Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Scott Diamond slated to be in the rotation, Harden could be a nice change of pace in a rotation that is also set to include Vance Worley. But if he's stretched out this spring, he'll have to earn that fifth spot in the rotation. He's also going up against top prospect Kyle Gibson and Liam Hendriks, along with several other candidates in camp.
"Harden, he could be a great pickup for us," catcher Joe Mauer said. "It's nice to see him around here healthy."
So for Harden, the goal this spring is to simply remain healthy and see where it takes him this season. There are no guarantees for the right-hander, who's not on the 40-man roster as a Minor League signing.
But Harden said he's feeling as healthy as ever and is excited to see if he's finally able to put together a full season. He hasn't thrown more than 100 innings since '09 and has only reached 150 innings once in his career, when he tossed 189 2/3 innings in '04 in his second season in Oakland.
"Basically, I want to be out there pitching," Harden said. "At this point, that's what I'm building to. I just want to get out there and play in some games. Where I fit in, that's yet to be determined."