Thursday, July 22, 2004

High school hero, lifetime zero?

There was an interesting story in last weekend's New York Times Magazine about Matt Harrington, who four years ago was an 18-year phenom touted by some as the best pitching prospect in the draft.

He was being favorably compared with Josh Beckett, the No. 2 pick of the Florida Marlins in 1999, who, at the age of 23, was the M.V.P. of last season's World Series. Harrington was praised for working hard and not being cocky. As the draft approached in June 2000, Harrington was expected to be the first pitcher taken in the first round and to receive millions of dollars in bonus money.
Harrington wasn't the first player taken -- Colorado ended drafting him 7th overall -- and that's when the trouble started.

After the Colorado Rockies drafted him at No. 7, Harrington, his parents and his agent, Tommy Tanzer, turned down offers of $4.9 million over eight years, $5.3 million over eight years and even $4 million over only two years. They said they were insulted by the offers, which showed a lack of respect by the Rockies (though such numbers were in the range of what a No. 7 pick could expect). Acrimonious negotiations stretched out for months before falling apart.
What's strange about this story is not that some young prospect holds out for more money -- that happens every year -- but that Harrington grew up poor in rural California and $4.9 million dollars is something people in those parts don't even dream about. For Harrington (who seemed to be influence by his father) to turn down that kind of money is nothing short of insane.

The funny thing about leverage is that if someone calls your bluff you better be ready to prove them wrong. And that's where this story picks up. Harrington never signed with the Rockies and the following year he was drafted in the second round by the Padres.

[San Diego,]who offered him $1.25 million over four years with a $300,000 bonus. He turned it down. In 2002, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted him in the 13th round, at No. 374, and offered him less than $100,000. Serious negotiations did not take place. Last year, the Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the 24th round, at No. 711, but nothing came of it. By this time, Harrington had earned the dubious distinction of being the longest holdout in baseball history.

Now he's a 36th-round pick. According to Newman, that typically warrants a bonus of less than $10,000. But Newman says the Yankees have seen Harrington pitch only once this year and are in no hurry to offer him a contract: "We'll follow him this summer and see what he does."
Ok, let's see if I have this right:

Year Team Round Pick Salary
2000 Rockies 1 7 $4.9M
2001 Padres 2 58 $1.25M
2002 DRays 13 374 $100K
2003 Reds 24 711 --
2004 Yanks 36 -- --
And what's worse is that Harrington, who once threw consistently in the mid-90's as a high schooler now is routinely clocked in the mid-80's -- and it's not clear why he's regressing (I should back up and explain that since turning down the $4.9 million in 2000 Harrington has been playing for the Fort Worth Cats in the independent Central Baseball League).

Either way, you don't have to be a mathematician to see that the longer Harrington waits to sign the smaller his paycheck is getting.

Tales of prospects who blow their chances because of greed, injury or some other misfortune that befalls them is relatively commonplace. These stories are even harder to fathom when you hear things like this:

"...On this sunny Mother's Day afternoon before a game, the stadium was deserted except for a lone woman, Nikki Davis, and her 6-month-old son, Austin, behind home plate. Her husband, Allen Davis, is a pitcher for the [Fort Worth]Cats who was drafted in the 24th round in 1998 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. "We didn't get much bonus money," Nikki said. In the years Allen, 28, has played baseball, he has made between $800 and $1,750 a month in the minor leagues. "Maybe $40,000 total in seven years," according to Nikki. "We lived in some shacks. Allen's getting tired of jobs at Home Depot. But I know we'll be in the big leagues someday." When asked what she thinks of Matt Harrington turning down millions, she said, with furrowed brow: "That's what you work for, isn't it? You come out of high school, and if you're lucky you get a bonus."
I know professional athletics is a business first and a game second. But somewhere along the way Harrington got confused about the part where he's supposed to get paid. It now looks like he's basically ensured that he will never get anything close to the $4.9 million he was guaranteed coming out of high school. And if history is any indication, he may not even get a sniff from major league teams in subsequent drafts.

After one of Harrington's outings this spring, a scout had the following to say:

"...I tell you, the kid's going backward" in his velocity. Then he added, "You know, I like that other kid better, the lefty Davis, the one with the wife and baby."
I guess the lesson here is don't be greedy and if you work hard things just might work out -- at least I hope they do for Allen Davis.