Sunday, March 20, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - Matt Harrison

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.


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Not only have we reached the end of this series, it concludes perfectly with one of the four uber-prospects the Texas Rangers acquired in exchange for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. You have to wonder if Mahay ever gets upset that nobody mentions that the Braves got him as well. It's always the Teix deal, not the Teix/Mahay deal. Poor guy.

The 2003 draft was eventful for the Braves. They didn't pick until 35th overall and selected Luis Atilano and Jarrod Saltalamacchia back-to-back. They also selected Jo-Jo Reyes, Jamie Romak, Brandon Jones, and in the 30th round, they grabbed Jonny Venters out of Lake Brantley High School (Florida). Venters has had the second best bWAR from that draft for the Braves. The top bWAR came from the guy the Braves picked 900 picks earlier - Harrison. He was Atlanta's sixth pick in the Top 100.

Before Atlanta selected him, Harrison was a lefty out of South Granville High School (go Vikings!). The school had only produced one major leaguer - the generically named Jeff Johnson, who pitched parts of three seasons with the Yankees with a 6.52 ERA. Harrison had a scholarship offer to attend North Carolina State, but gave it up to ink a contract with the Atlanta Braves. Just 17 years-old, Harrison headed to the Gulf Coast League for his first taste of professional ball. He showed a solid ability to throw strikes, which is sometimes difficult for teenage pitchers, and after two years at rookie ball, Harrison headed to Rome to begin 2005. It was a nice season from the tall lefty as he finished with a 3.23 ERA over 167 innings. He maintained a 3.9 K/BB rate and while the homerun rate wasn't excellent, it was still a solid year.

It did not, however, get him in the Top 100 prospects. The next season would change that. Splitting the season between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, Harrison finished with a 3.35 ERA and pretty similar rates overall. While certainly not an ace, he was a productive prospect with a chance to contribute as a left-handed starter - something that often comes with a high degree of value. Baseball America ranked him as the #90th best prospect in baseball while Baseball Prospectus was even higher on him, placing him #79th.

2007 looked like it might be the year for Harrison, who had already logged a dozen starts in Double-A. However, something was a little off. His K/BB rate, which had never been under 3.45, was sitting at 2.29 by late July. He had always given up his share of hits, but Harrison's calling card was his ability to not hurt himself with walks. Now, compared to many of his peers, a 2.6 BB/9 is hardly a bad thing, but it was a half-a-walk higher than any other season. What the Braves, and the league, didn't know is that Harrison was hurt. Shortly before the end of July, he was placed on the disabled list.

That threw a wrench into a negotiation currently under way. John Schuerholz was desperate to avoid a second consecutive year out of the playoffs after 14 straight division titles. Despite clear issues in the rotation, Schuerholz zeroed in on the possibility of out-slugging everyone with the young and powerful Teixeira. The Rangers saw a chance to maximize Teix's value before he hit free agency after the 2008 season. They wanted Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, and Neftali Feliz - a dynamic package with three Top 100 talents. They also wanted Harrison, but his injury concerned them. To smooth things over, the Braves added lefty Beau Jones, who they had taken with the 41st pick of the 2005 draft. Jones was an interesting arm, but the Braves saw him as a bullpen prospect so they weren't very attached. The Rangers agreed to the five-prospect package and Harrison headed to Texas. He would be shut down for the remainder of the minor league season, but did made seven starts in the Arizona Fall League.

It didn't take long for Harrison to get to the majors after that. He made 15 starts with the Rangers in the summer of '08, but it wasn't until 2011 that he established himself. He made a full 30 start season for the Rangers, brought his walks down, and did a better job at keeping the ball in the yard. The results was a 185.2 ING campaign in which he had a 3.39 ERA and 3.52 FIP. He even made a start in Turner Field on June 18. He was in line for the win until Darren Oliver blew it. Texas scored off Scott Proctor in the ninth because using Scott Proctor in a tied extra inning game only works when Jerry Meals is behind the plate. Felix came in and got the save with K's of Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward.

Harrison was even better the next year. He lowered his ERA to 3.29, picked up his first 200-inning season, was an All-Star, and even picked up a Cy Young vote or two. Knowing they had a potential workhorse on their hands, the Rangers gave Harrison a $55M extension to buy out his final two years of arbitration and first three years of free agency. He would be team-controlled through at least his Age-31 season with an option for 2018.

But...that didn't work out so well. In the three years that have transpired since signing the extension, Harrison has made just 9 starts. His back injuries led him to eventually succumb to lumbar spinal disc fusion surgery in June of 2014. He - well, his contract - was also traded to the Phillies last July in the big Cole Hamels trade.

As 2016 is just around the corner, things have not change for Harrison. His back remains an issue and the Phillies don't expect him to contribute "anytime soon, if at all." It's unfortunate news for the lefty has been stuck in a bystander role just after reaching the heights of his career. Will he ever throw another meaningful pitch? That remains to be seen. You have to hope he does because never pitching again because of a back injury is a tough way to go out. Still, it's not looking good for the first pitcher of the Teix trade to get to the majors.

And that concludes the Former Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects as a Brave who Never Actually Played in Atlanta. Oh, that explains why I shortened the title. To go back through the list, you can either click any of the links below or just click here to run through them in reverse chronological order.

Previous Random Former Prospects...
Brett Evert
Rob Bell
Jose Peraza
Tom Redington
Dennis Burlingame
J.R. Graham
Elvis Andrus
Bobby Smith
Bubba Nelson
Neftali Feliz
Gorkys Hernandez
Matt Belisle
Matt McClendon

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