Harrington Signs Deal With The Cubs
Six years after being drafted, righthander will play in affiliated ball
After six years, five draft selections and three independent league teams, Matt Harrington is finally headed to affiliated baseball.
Harrington, the seventh overall pick in the 2000 draft, signed a minor league contract with the Cubs, after having spent the past four seasons pitching for the independent Fort Worth Cats. As with almost all independent league signings, the contract involved no signing bonus, and Harrington will head to spring training in Arizona knowing that he will have to impress to break camp on a minor league roster.
"I told him all along I'd probably be happier than his dad when he signed. I've been through a lot of ups and downs with him," said Fort Worth pitching coach Dan Smith, Harrington's pitching coach for four of the past six years. "I'm thrilled to see him get to the opportunity. What he does with it is up to him."
A call placed to Harrington was not returned.
Harrington, Baseball America's 2000 High School Player of the Year, has proven to be the poster boy for the risks of being a draft holdout. He was the top high school arm in the 2000 draft, but slipped to the Rockies at No. 7 in a draft class fraught with signability concerns and a lack of consensus on the top talent.
The Rockies offered a $3.7 million signing bonus, or a $5.3 million major league deal. Harrington's agent, Tommy Tanzer, said that the Rockies had agreed to a pre-draft $4.95 million deal before reneging on it, a charge the Rockies denied. The Harringtons stuck with Tanzer, and turned down the money at the time, but later sued Tanzer. He switched representation to Scott Boras prior to re-entering the 2001 draft and pitched in the independent Northern League. The Padres picked Harrington and offered him $1.2 million, which he turned down. Over the next three years, Harrington was re-selected in three more drafts in later rounds each time, but he never signed.
And the 97 mph fastball that had been his calling card disappeared along the way. When Smith coached Harrington at St. Paul in 2001, the velocity was there, even if the results didn't show it. As a 19-year-old Harrington had a 9.87 ERA in 18 innings, struggling against veteran hitters.
But by 2002, his fastball had lost much of its zip. He joined the Central League's Fort Worth Cats (now in the American Association) in 2003, reuniting with Smith. When he arrived, his mechanics seemed the same, but as he battled nagging minor injuries, he never showed the same fastball. Eventually he went in for minor shoulder surgery to clean up his rotator cuff, which scratched any chance to sign with the Yankees, who had shown some interest in him after drafting him in the 36th round of the 2004 draft.
Harrington was supposed to have one more chance to showcase his stuff for scouts this spring when another Boras client, Luke Hochevar, signed with the Cats in preparation for the draft. The Cats made sure to bring Harrington in to relieve Hochevar, but scouts were unimpressed. Harrington showed up to camp at roughly 250 pounds, the heaviest he's ever been. When he'd enter the game, scouts would turn on their radar guns long enough to see his fastball top out at 87 mph, and quickly write him off as a might-have-been.
"He knew that he screwed up that chance," Smith said. "That's the opportunity of a lifetime. That was our plan to let some scouts see him, but he was only throwing 87-88 mph."
Hochevar was taken with the first pick of the draft. Harrington watched him, and the scouts, leave in late May. But rather than giving up, that disappointment may have been exactly what he needed.
"The message I had to Matt was you could go the whole year without giving up an earned run," Smith said, "but if you don't throw harder than 90 you aren't going anywhere. I tip my hat to him; he busted to do what he needed to do.
"I saw him when he was throwing hard. The last couple of years he hasn't thrown as hard. His arm slot and mechanics are generally the same, but nothing was bringing it back. The only thing we hadn't tried was a workout program and monitoring his diet. We attacked that this summer."
Harrington lost 30 pounds during the season, sticking to a diet and workout program that got him much closer to his ideal playing weight of around 205 pounds. He worked as the Cats' setup man this year, going 6-1, 2.90 with 56 strikeouts and 23 walks in 50 innings.
"He hasn't been 150 percent devoted to baseball, which I think he is now." Smith said. "This summer, with the talks we had with him, we told him 'Hey, this is your last chance with us.' He took it and he did what we asked him to do."
As he shed weight, his fastball started to come back. He still isn't throwing the 96-97 he did in high school, but by the end of the year, he was topping 90 mph again, occasionally touching 92-93.
And in side sessions, he and Smith worked on bringing back his curveball. In high school it showed potential to be a major league out pitch, but as he lost arm speed, the curveball lost its bite. Eventually he had to junk it to go to a slider to survive in indy ball.
"But I told him, it wasn't a big league slider," Smith said. "He threw it from a different arm slot. You have to make it mimic the fastball to make it a major league pitch."
In side sessions, Harrington's curveball once again began to display some of the bite that once made it a plus pitch. He never got to use it in games, because the Cats were in the American Association playoff race, one that eventually ended in them winning the title, but it will likely be his second pitch when he heads to spring training.
The expectations are not nearly as large as they once were. Where Harrington once was offered a big league contract that envisioned him making the majors in just a couple of years, he now will head to spring training likely aiming to make the high Class A Daytona Cubs roster.
"Basically if you're a top 15 round pick, you're looking at a minimum of four years," Smith said. "When you're coming out of independent ball, you've got spring training to prove you could be something special. He will have three and a half to four weeks to prove something.
"He gets a shot with an organization. I still think there is a lot more to be found in (his arm). Hopefully the opportunity will drive to work even harder this winter. He knows I and his dad will be breathing down his neck."