That’s because the 23-year-old Harben underwent Tommy John Surgery this offseason, roughly two months after joining the Cubs from Minnesota in the trade that sent Phil Nevin to the Twins.
Harben made three starts for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League this past October, but was eventually shut down as the result of elbow soreness. He underwent surgery some time in November.
A minor league player being invited to big league camp while on the mend from Tommy John Surgery isn’t altogether unheard of, but it is rare.
“It doesn’t happen often,” spells Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita. “He was taken off the 40-man roster and by doing that, part of the deal was that we’d take him to big league camp. He won’t do anything but rehab, but you’ve got to reward him for what he would have earned.”
The Cubs signed Harben to a minor league contract through the 2007 season after he was bumped from the club’s 40-man roster in December. While pitching at Double-A New Britain of the Eastern League for the Twins a season ago, he went 4-9 with a 3.96 ERA.
The Cubs had been looking for Harben’s command to return during his tenure in the Fall League. The pitcher walked 67, threw 15 wild pitches and struck out 74 in 122 2/3 innings in 2006.
In 2005, Harben put together a 10-win season for Class-A Fort Myers of the Florida State League and finished with the league’s fourth best ERA at 2.66 in 135 1/3 innings.
“What a shame that he had the injury, but if you’re going to have one, that elbow injury is the one to have,” Fleita said. “With his work ethic and rehab, I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back sooner than expected.”
Harben is known as a sinker ball pitcher, having induced twice as many groundballs than flyballs a season ago with New Britain. He was a 15th-round Twins draft pick from the University of Central Arkansas in 2002.
Solar Sox manager and Cubs coach Pat Listach liked what he saw from Harben in the short time the pitcher was on his staff in the Fall League.
“He’s a big, tall kid with a good arm and good sink on the ball, and he has a pretty good breaking ball,” Listach observed.
Harben was one of 11 non-roster players invited to big league camp on Tuesday, joining pitchers Sean Gallagher, Ryan O’Malley, Carmen Pignatiello and Randy Wells; catcher Jake Fox; infielders Mike Kinkade, Casey McGehee and Eric Patterson; and outfielders Tyler Colvin and Chris Walker.
Photo: Scout.com/Bobby Vangelatos.