Matt Harrington: A Case Study on Overplaying Your Hand

Matt Harrington was once considered the nation’s best amateur ballplayer equipped with a million dollar arm. Kevin Towers, the then-GM of the San Diego Padres, said once Harrington signed a professional contract, he would, “be on the fast track to the big leagues."[1] What Towers did not know was just how complicated that process of signing a contract would be for him. After an outstanding amateur career, Harrington entered the 2000 draft as one of the hottest prospects of the entire class. Over the years, however, the only Major League record Harrington ever set was being drafted five times without signing. The once future all-star now works at Costco for $11.50/hour.[2]

Studying Harrington’s gross underperformance of his potential provides a classic case study of a draftee over-playing his hand. In cases such as Harrington’s, mishandled negotiations and advice from agents can significantly impact the career of a young player despite the good intentions of family members and the athlete himself.

A Can't Miss Star

After posting an 11-0 record with a 0.54 ERA and 126 strikeouts over 65 innings for Palmdale High School in California, Harrington was recognized by Gatorade, Baseball America, and USA Today as High School Player of the Year.[3] Industry consensus was that there was little doubt he was going to be a superstar. With the draft approaching, Harrington’s family hired Tommy Tanzer to represent him and negotiate his contract. Prior to the Draft, Tanzer set the price tag on Harrington’s bonus at $4.95 million – 25% more than what Josh Hamilton received as the #1 overall pick the year before.[4] Because of signability concerns, Harrington dropped to 7th overall where he was selected by the Colorado Rockies. The initial offer came in at $2.2 million, with a final offer set at over $4 million with contract stipulations. The offer was in terms of salary, not signing bonus, and was spread over eight years of service. In addition, Harrington would forgo his arbitration years. With pressure from Tanzer and Gene Orza, the player’s union chief, Harrigton declined the offer. With a limited time remaining to sign, the Rockies withdrew their final offer and Harrington re-entered the MLB draft in 2001.

More Failed Negotiations

During the 2001 season, Harrington signed with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League, but wound up going 0-2 with a 9.47 ERA over 19.0 innings. In June, he was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 2nd round – 58th overall. After months of failed negotiations between the Padres and Tanzer, Harrington fired his agent and hired Scott Boras. Boras worked with the Padres, but never came close to a deal, seeking almost twice the $1.2 million the Club was offering. Commenting on the negotiations, Towers said, “[Matt] didn’t have any leverage at that time. He wasn’t going to college. He was in an independent league. After what he just went through the previous year and he does it again, you start to wonder, ‘Is that drive and desire really there?"[5]

In 2002, Harrington continued his independent league career, but his “fastball seemed to be gone" and he went a combined 2-6 with a 6.75 ERA for the independent Fort Worth Cats of the Central League and the Long Beach Breakers of the Western League.[6]

Harrington provides a dramatic case of failed negotiations and their consequences. There is no question that Tommy Tanzer and Scott Boras did what they believed was in the best interest of their client, but in the end the player must do what is best for him and his family. Matt Harrington did not know when listening to his agents that rejecting multi-million dollar offers would ultimately lead to his employment at Costco. In retrospect, the Harrington family has no one to blame but themselves. If Matt truly wanted to play, he would have signed long before his last fifth chance.


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