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His Draft Choices Cost Him Millions

Palmdale's Harrington declined lucrative offers while falling from No. 7 to 711 in baseball draft.

June 13, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

In the span of three years, Matt Harrington has plunged from the No. 7 pick in the Major League Baseball draft to No. 711, a freefall costing him millions.

The 21-year-old pitcher from Palmdale was selected this month for the fourth time, in the 24th round by the Cincinnati Reds. But as three major league teams already have learned, drafting Harrington is no guarantee of signing him.

He turned down $4 million from the Colorado Rockies as a first-round pick in 2000, then $1.25 million from the San Diego Padres after they took him in the second round in 2001.

Harrington fell to the 13th round last year, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays offering a fraction of the previous offers.

Having passed on those potential paydays, Harrington is scratching out a living with the independent Fort Worth Cats, earning $1,000 a month as he tries to regain the form that made him the most coveted high school pitcher in the nation.

"I don't regret anything," he said. "I make my decisions and I live with them. I don't look back on them anymore. I look forward to what I have to do now."

Arm problems and a series of shaky minor league outings have created doubts about his ability, making him progressively less attractive to baseball's talent evaluators.

"I have not heard a lot of talk this past spring about Matt Harrington," Frank Marcos, director of the major league scouting bureau, said before the draft. "I've been with the [scouting] bureau since 1988, and I can't think of any scenarios that match this one. It's sad."

If Harrington has any regrets -- and he must, right? -- he conceals them.

He utters not a single "what if" over the money that has slipped through his hands, and he refuses to second-guess his decisions. However, he is suing Tommy Tanzer, the agent who represented him during negotiations with the Rockies and Padres, claiming he received bad advice. A trial date has been set for November.

Harrington chooses to focus on the future, no matter how uncertain it appears.

"I'm always optimistic," he said.

First and foremost, Harrington must prove he is healthy. He missed the final month of last season with Fort Worth because of soreness in his right elbow, the third time in two years he was forced to stop throwing because of arm problems.

Harrington says he is fine, but Fort Worth has limited his innings this season because he is not yet 100%, a club spokesman said. The right-hander got off to a rocky start when, facing his first batter of the season, he gave up a game-tying, three-run homer in relief.

In 11 appearances, including four starts, Harrington is 0-3 with a 5.20 earned-run average. He had been pitching more effectively until Wednesday, when he gave up eight runs in 2 1/3 innings in a loss to the Alexandria (La.) Aces.

Although the Reds were aware of Harrington's struggles, they drafted him based on potential and youth.

"When you're young, you can always get it back," said Leland Maddox, the Reds' assistant general manager and director of scouting. "If he was old, I would say it was a far-fetched pick ... but I think it was worth a gamble."

Maddox said he will concentrate on negotiations with early-round picks before he turns to Harrington, whose offer is not likely to include a sizable bonus.

"I'm going to try to become personal with him and find out what makes him tick," Maddox said. "I'd like to bring him [to Cincinnati] and have him meet some of our pitching coaches, especially Don Gullett, who's been able to help kids turn their pitching careers around."

Said Harrington: "It depends on the situation and what [the Reds] offer me."

The Reds' negotiating strategy sounds similar to that of the previous team that drafted Harrington. Tampa Bay watched him with a wait-and-see attitude, concerned that the velocity of his fastball -- once timed at 97 mph -- had fallen since high school.

"There have been some questions about his health," said Cam Bonifay, Tampa Bay's scouting director.

Still, Bonifay said the Devil Rays made Harrington "a fine offer." Though he would not divulge a specific figure, citing team policy, Bonifay said a bonus "three-quarters of the way" toward $100,000 was offered. Harrington said negotiations broke down before a serious offer could be discussed.

In the meantime, Harrington is pitching for his third independent-league team -- not exactly the glamorous life he envisioned when he came out of Palmdale High with the baseball world at his feet.

"It hasn't been a perfect journey, but it's my journey," he said.

If Harrington has learned anything in the last few years, it is that professional baseball is a business. He says he still loves the game, but no longer with wide-eyed innocence.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who think I'm an idiot because I turned down a $4-million contract," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "But there were other things involved, and the advice I received wasn't great. I've had to live with that, and I'm just trying to make the best of a bad situation."

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