Some, citing his lack of work during a season twice interrupted by stints on the disabled list, thought he should come back as a reliever. General manager Billy Beane, though, was among those who wanted him to return to the rotation, and Beane doesn't lose many debates.
So Harden returned to the rotation, making three starts on limited pitch counts at the end of the regular season before taking the ball for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Detroit.
The results were typically uneven, with flashes of his full-health brilliance mixed with occasional command problems, but after throwing 30 pitches in the bullpen at Papago Park on Saturday during Oakland's first workout for pitchers and catchers, Harden said that Beane absolutely made the right call.
Had he not been brought back as a starter, Harden said, he might have had a winter of discontent. But by working his way back to the point where he was able to throw all of his pitches at max effort, especially in frigid Detroit during the playoffs, he proved to himself -- and to the A's -- that he was truly recovered.
"It got that doubt out of my mind," Harden said. "That was the best test."
"That's why we did it," Beane said. "Any time you have a guy who's missed a lot of time, like Rich did, if he comes back late in the year, the ideal is to get him some confidence going into the offseason, knowing everything was OK."
Harden, who has been working out at Papago for the past few weeks, threw only fastballs and changeups on Saturday. He said that it was his changeup -- specifically, his tendency to overextend his arm on the pitch -- that caused the elbow strain in the first place, so he's been working on dialing it back a bit.
"I'm trying not to do too much too early," he said, "but everything felt good."
Also being dialed back is the amount of time Harden spends in the weight room. Beane said there have "been times when we thought he was a little overzealous," and Harden said he's going to "back off" his in-season training, focusing on cardio work and shoulder exercises in favor of upper-body lifting.
Easy Street: Closer Huston Street also was among the A's pitchers who threw in the bullpen, and he came out of it thrilled.
"I felt great," Street said. "That was only the second bullpen I've thrown since the end of last season, and I feel really good about it. This is the best I've felt in a long time."
Street was hampered by a variety of injuries last season and said that his late-season groin strain forced him to alter his mechanics, dropping his arm angle. After taking some time off after the playoffs ended, he started a throwing program that featured 45 consecutive days of playing catch with a football.
"I did a lot of that, a lot of long toss ... mostly just strengthening my arm," he said. "So to throw like I did today, it kind of validates the work I put in."
Street added that he's looking forward to his first "normal" Spring Training.
"My rookie year, I came in and had to go hard right away, just trying to make the team," he explained. "And then last year I had to be game-ready by March 3 because of the World Baseball Classic. So this year I didn't start throwing until a lot later than I had been, and hopefully that keeps me stronger as the season gets longer."
Impressed with Embree: Manager Bob Geren has heard great things about new lefty reliever Alan Embree from Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, who was with Embree in San Diego last season, when Embree set a career high, with 73 appearances.
"He told me [Embree's] a gamer; he'll go out and let it go every day," Geren said. "He doesn't care if it's a left-handed hitter or a right-handed hitter. He's good against both. ... He's not going to be a left-handed specialist, that's for sure."
Geren got to watch Embree throw to backup catcher Adam Melhuse on Saturday and said that his stuff looked "effortless." He was similarly impressed with the rest of the pitchers who worked, including Dan Haren, Chad Gaudin, Justin Duchscherer, Jason Windsor, Ron Flores and Jay Witasick.
"They were all throwing strikes, throwing all their pitches, nice sequences," Geren said. "It's nice to see guys with a plan on the first day. It looks like they've been well trained, and they have."
Dribblers ...: Asked if it was safe to assume that a healthy Harden would start on Opening Day, Geren said, "He's got No. 1 stuff. On paper it's kind of looking that way." But he stopped short of making it official, adding that early-season matchups might factor into the decision. ... Lefty Dan Meyer, who underwent surgery to remove a bone chip in his shoulder last July, is the only pitcher in camp who will be limited early on. ... Witasick, whose arrival from Maryland was delayed by snow, landed in Phoenix at 1 a.m. on Saturday. ... Righty Joe Blanton, who will be among the pitchers throwing in the bullpen on Sunday, is listed in the team's media guide at 250 pounds. Just before taking the field on Saturday morning, he tipped the clubhouse scale at 255. "Yeah," he said with a smile, "but that's with all this stuff on." ... As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, athletic trainers and team doctors are no longer allowed to discuss players' injuries with the media. That information must now come directly from the player, his manager or his team's general manager.
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.