Baseball is a zero-sum game, in which one team always wins and one team loses. A month ago, the Astros used the first pick in the draft to select San Diego high school pitcher Brady Aiken. Aiken featured an upper-90s fastball from the left side and control that high school pitchers with his kind of heat don't often have. The Astros were ecstatic to get a young pitcher with such huge upside, and Aiken was ecstatic to start his pro career and get paid millions of dollars to do it. That's a win-win, and yet on Friday both sides lost, after the deadline for draft picks to sign pro contracts passed without Aiken's signature on an Astros contract.
Initially, the two sides agreed on a $6.5 million contract, but the Astros rescinded the offer amid reports that something was found in Aiken's pitching elbow during his medical exam (later revealed to be a potential issue with his left ulnar collateral ligament). At that point the team offered Aiken 40 percent of his slot's value, the minimum required to recoup a first-round draft pick next season should the player fail to sign. As you might imagine, this upset Aiken and his adviser, Casey Close, who have maintained throughout this process that Aiken is fully healthy. Reports on Friday had the Astros going to Aiken with increasing offers (up to $5 million) as the deadline got closer and closer, but by that point Aiken wasn't interested. It's unclear if he was holding out for the figure he had initially agreed to or if he was fed up with the Astros and had already resolved to go in a different direction.
The end results for both sides aren't happy. The Astros miss out on a promising young player, the supposed prize for having the worst record in the game in 2013. There are real advantages to picking first in the draft besides simply getting the top overall pick, including picking first in each round* and having the largest pool of bonus money to spend on signing draft picks. So, not only do you get the first pick and the first pick in each successive round, but also you have the most money with which to entice high-upside high-schoolers to join your team. But because the Astros didn't sign Aiken, they didn't get the bonus money that went with his pick, and because they didn't get that money, they couldn't sign two other players they had hoped to nail down in high school pitchers Jacob Nix (fifth round) and Mac Marshall (21st round). Now the Astros don't get Aiken, they don't get Nix, and they don't get Marshall. Whoops.
*You'll know how unfair this is if you play any fantasy sport because if your league doesn't have either an auction draft or a snake draft someone is going to freak out.
One thing Houston will get is a compensation pick in next year's draft. The CBA deems that a team failing to sign its first-round pick gets the pick one slot further back in next year's draft. For the Astros, they'll get the second overall pick next year, meaning they may have missed out on some good players but they'll be picking back up top again next season. It should be noted, though, that if they fail to sign that pick, no further compensation pick would be awarded.
Aiken, Marshall and Nix are quite a loss for an organization attempting to rebuild through the draft, but for Aiken, the repercussions of this uncompleted transaction are probably far worse. The Astros will miss Aiken, but they'll pick in the first round again next year and every successive year between now and when the Earth crashes into the Sun. But Aiken's window to cash in is much shorter. Before the draft, Aiken looked like one of the most desirable prospects in the known baseball world. That kind of thing is very valuable to a major-league team, and they'll pay heavily for it, but it also has a way of changing fast. Look at the consensus first overall pick last year, Mark Appel, who has struggled mightily in Class A. He may still be a great pitcher, but you have to think that at this point that it's even money that he even reaches the majors at all. If Appel had been available in this year's draft, he wouldn't have gone first overall and he might not have been a first-round pick. Aiken looks like the next great thing now, but in a year he very well may not.
Aiken has undeniable talent, but the fact is that most players drafted don't make the majors. While it's true that the odds are far better for first overall picks than for anyone else, it's also true that most high school pitchers don't sniff the majors at any time in their careers. Injuries and the inability to develop are the culprits there, to the point where holding out for an extra million dollars when you've been offered five million is like hitting on 20 in blackjack. You might get that ace, but more than likely you're just going to lose everything. Aiken may yet have a great career in front of him. The Astros may have been rude and bumbling and deceitful in their dealings with him. But at the end of the day they did offer him $5 million to play baseball.
Now Aiken may go to UCLA, where he had previously committed to attend, and he'll hope to play well enough and stay healthy enough to get picked high again when he re-enters the draft in three years. Alternatively, he can enroll at a junior college and be eligible for the draft again next year. The guess here is, barring any other developments, that is what he'll do. Here's hoping he can stay healthy until at least then.
In the rush to condemn the Astros it should be pointed out that if indeed there is a problem with Aiken's left elbow that puts his future productivity in doubt, it's reasonable for the Astros to pay less, at least in the closed one-team-for-each-player market that is the MLB draft (a topic for another day). To me, the problem comes when the Astros offered Aiken $5 million. How bad could Aiken's elbow really look if they were willing to offer him $5 million to sign? What's the difference to the Astros whether Aiken gets $5 million or $6.5 million? At the same time Houston was offering Aiken $1.5 million less than what the two sides had previously agreed upon, the Astros offered another draft pick, Marshall, $1.5 million. There may be nothing untoward there at all, but it sounds a bit fishy. It sounds like the Astros decided they could sign both Aiken and Marshall instead of just Aiken if they could convince him to take less money. In fact, it sounds like they thought they could sign more than just those two had Aiken accepted their restructured $3 million offer. Just as Aiken turned down $5 million to play baseball because he was hoping for $6.5 million, the Astros seemingly turned down having Aiken because they wanted Aiken and Nix and Marshall. Now, like Aiken, the Astros have nothing.
There may even be more fallout from this as the MLBPA has hinted at legal action against the Astros, presumably for offering contracts to Aiken and Nix and then backing out on them. It's unclear as of this writing what the union would seek to accomplish through a lawsuit, but it could be as simple as obtaining free agency for Aiken (and presumably Nix). Daniel Schoenfeld at the website Beyond The Boxscore looked at what Aiken could make should he become a free agent and concluded it would be a six-year contract for $20 million. Frankly, that sounds low to me. If the first overall pick in the draft were suddenly a free agent and could sign with any team without that team being penalized in any way (no loss of draft picks, no loss of players as in a trade, etc.), there would be teams willing to bid twice that. But even if I'm wrong and Schoenfeld is right, that's $14.5 million more than what Aiken was set to receive from the Astros. Which, you know, isn't bad.
While that possibility represents a best-case scenario for Aiken, it likely represents a worst-case scenario for MLB, which doesn't want to see a player who "skirted" the draft rewarded, even if that player's supposed skirting was at least in part due to the way the drafting team conducted negotiations. That's an expensive precedent and one that the teams and MLB want no part of.
This story is still unfolding, and it will likely be a while before we get any closure on what really happened between Aiken and the Astros. All we know, at least right now, is that when the Astros and Aiken played baseball, they both lost.