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02/14/09 4:13 PM EST

Enthusiastic Harden expects more work

After outstanding offseason, Cubs righty aiming for 25-30 starts

MESA, Ariz. -- Rich Harden didn't throw off the mound with the other Cubs pitchers on Saturday at Fitch Park, but there's no reason to panic. The right-hander did throw long toss and was seen smiling a lot on the first day of workouts. He's looking forward to 20-something starts with the Cubs and eager to put an end to the non-stop questions regarding his shoulder.

Harden spent most of this past winter in Arizona rather than Canada, working with strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss, and called it his best offseason yet. The Cubs would be happy with 25 starts from the right-hander, which is how many Harden made last season combined with Oakland and Chicago.

"I want more," Harden said Saturday. "Thirty is what I'd like to get. I haven't really gotten that yet, and that's kind of my goal. I definitely want more."

He hasn't made that many since 2004. But this year is different. He still has what the Cubs are calling an "issue" with his right shoulder. The Cubs knew about it when they traded for him last July 8, sending Matt Murton, Sean Gallagher, Eric Patterson and Josh Donaldson to Oakland. Nothing has changed.

"He's absolutely no different, except maybe stronger and better than [when] we got him," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "Does that mean he holds up and wins 20 games for five years? I don't know. He's obviously had issues, and we knew he had issues when we got him."

The injury wasn't because of a pitch Harden threw.

"I never had the issues with my shoulder from throwing," he said. "How I initially hurt my shoulder and had these problems with it the last year and a half or so is because two years ago, I threw a pitch, had a comebacker, it was a one-hopper, and I tried to barehand it. It was over my head, over my throwing shoulder. That's when I did it. It wasn't really throwing, it was doing that."

What exactly is the problem?

"My No. 1 priority is to the Cubs. They made a big commitment to me, picking up my option this year. My goal is to go out there and pitch as many games as I can and win."
-- Rich Harden

"Everybody's got their opinions," Harden said. "It's funny -- people are telling me they're reading this and that. It's something I have to deal with."

He knows the word "tear" makes people skittish. There may be a tear, but it's nothing to fret about. Surgery was not something Harden considered.

"Last year, I was able to get through the season and have some success," he said. "Rehabbing it, doing the physical therapy and getting stronger, it's only going to feel better than it did last year. That's what I wanted to do. I'm happy with that. I'm looking forward to the start of the season."

In Chicago, Harden was peppered with questions about his shoulder when the stadium radar guns showed a decrease in velocity as the 2008 season wore on. He became weary of the topic.

"That's the way it is," he said. "I've got to deal with it, and that's fine. I can't worry or think about the way it used to be. I got through it last year and had some success. I'm feeling better, feeling stronger and hopefully I'll do better."

The Cubs will take a repeat performance. He went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts for Chicago after opening the season 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 games for the Athletics.

He's learned how to listen to his body. He knows to ask for a day off or a little more time between starts if needed.

"It's not just [the Cubs], it's on me," Harden said. "Every year I learn more about my body and how I feel. You want to be out there every single game for 100-plus pitches. That's the way I am -- I want to be out there every game no matter what. You have to take a step back sometimes and evaluate how I'm feeling and manage it properly so I'm strong at the end of the season."

Even though he arrived in camp saying this is the strongest his shoulder has felt, Harden will be monitored so he doesn't overdo it. That's why he didn't throw off the mound with the others on Saturday at Fitch Park.

"Don't read anything into it," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "We have a much longer time this spring than normal, so we don't need to rush anybody. He's been throwing and feels nice and strong and healthy, but basically we're just holding him back a little bit."

That's also why Harden isn't pitching for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.

"It didn't make sense after the season I had last year and coming into this year with the shoulder," Harden said. "We just have to be careful with that. I worked so hard to get ready for the season, and we didn't want to rush it and go out there and potentially have an issue. My No. 1 priority is to the Cubs. They made a big commitment to me, picking up my option this year. My goal is to go out there and pitch as many games as I can and win."

He is very loyal to Canada. Harden has two hockey sticks in his locker at Fitch.

"After a bad outing, it's nice to come in and shoot around," he said.

Harden will pitch in Cactus League games, will be ready for his 25 starts -- and maybe more.

"We threw out that number -- he might pitch 32," Piniella said. "You never know. This kid loves to compete, but at the same time we're aware he's had some physical problems and we're not going to overtax him."

"The big thing for me this year is mechanics," Harden said. "I have to be consistent with my mechanics and get my arm in a good spot to throw without putting a strain on my shoulder or the rest of my body. That's going to be big for me -- and that's what I'm working with Larry [Rothschild] with. I've always been really long and dragged my arm sometimes."

He's a different pitcher now. Harden says he's not trying to register 100 mph on the stadium speedometers.

"The older I get, the more I get away from that," Harden said. "I used to go out there and try to put up big numbers. It was fun, but those times are over. Every once in a while, possibly, but it's more about pitching now and location and change of speeds. That's what the game is about, and the older I get the more I realize that."

Last season gave him a huge confidence boost.

"I pitched more last year, and that's something I want to do even more this year," Harden said. "Pitching-wise, it's probably the best I've pitched."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.