Exhale. Breathe in, breathe out, let your muscles relax. Think happy thoughts. Okay, phew, that was intense. Yes, the Astros failed to sign Brady Aiken. Yes, a lot of people, including a good portion of us here at TCB are pretty pissed. Yes, the world of Astros fans everywhere has shattered and collapsed, the apocalypse has come, and Craig Biggio was last seen getting raptured into heaven.
Errr wait...actually that world ending stuff didn't happen. BUT, the team still doesn't have Aiken....or Jacob Nix...or Mac Marshall, and that sucks. In fact it REALLY sucks, bad enough that more than a few people are going to be calling for Jeff Luhnow's job. While that is premature, the Astros have only cemented their reputation as being the black sheep of Major League Baseball, and as a team that does things much differently than anyone else.
Would any other team have handled this situation this way? Tough to tell, but....probably not. The fact is the Astros AREN'T a normal team, and DO NOT have a normal front office. Many of us appreciate that fact because we believe that the Astros usually make smart business decisions, decisions most teams wouldn't because they aren't as bold, aren't as smart, or are just plain held back by an irrelevant tradition that permeates baseball's culture. Let's prepare ourselves for this because the national media is absolutely going to excoriate the Astros for how this whole debacle played out. The team's front office has already taken a ton of flak from outside observers and that heat is only going to be piled on from here. Was the team wrong in what they did? Let's briefly go over what we do know for sure.
1. The Astros had already agreed on an under-slot deal for Brady Aiken, with the savings going to sign Jacob Nix at above-slot numbers
2. Aiken has an unusually small UCL, which the team did not discover until after they had reached a verbal agreement with both players. It is not known for certain if this would preclude Aiken from having an effective major league pitching career, but past examples would suggest that it does. Aiken is also pitching without pain and throwing very well..
3. The Astros determined that, armed with this new knowledge, they should be entitled to a discount on Aiken's signing bonus because they now see him as damaged goods. Aiken, his family, and his "advisor" vehemently disagree and a wide gulf separates the two sides as they failed to reach any sort of agreement.
When all the reporting on these failed negotiations is said and done, most of the of the national media will focus on the $1.5 million that the Astros tried to discount on their deal to Aiken. In a multi-billion dollar sport, the Astros will look cheap, just like their payroll, just like their unwillingness to sign any big ticket free agents for the past few years (with all due respect to Scott Feldman). They will look uncaring, like a cold analytic machine that has completely taken the human element outside of baseball. These things have already been said and the headlines are already writing themselves.
Was it really just about $1.5 million? Well, kinda. Of course, not the actual money, which is chump change to any major league sports team, but what it represented. It represented not Aiken's change in value to the team, but the team's ability to sign Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall. Luhnow wanted all of them. He wanted to make the numbers work however he could to get the best value out of this draft.
But if that was the only issue here, then a last minute deal would probably have been reached to at least sign 2 out of 3 of these guys. It wasn't though. Aiken's UCL is a very legitimate concern, and there is precedent for a team renegotiating because of a UCL problem: R.A. Dickey and the Texas Rangers. Of course, Dickey's signing bonus was much more modest and the difference in the amount the Rangers renegotiated for was much smaller, but it is a cautionary tale. While Dickey came back to have a productive big league career his resurgence as a knuckleballer was nothing short of a miracle. The Astros can reasonably expect Aiken to have similar health issues as Dickey, but they can't assume he's going to reinvent himself as a knuckle ball pitcher 10 years into his career.
Jeff Luhnow is a smart guy. He knows all of this, he and his team did the risk analysis, the cost-benefit analysis, and it seems like they came to the conclusion that if they couldn't sign all 3 of these young pitchers, then the team would be better off taking the number 2 pick next year and grabbing someone like Dazmon Cameron or Alex Bregman. This is the way the team operates, and it shouldn't necessarily surprise us they made this decision once all of the information has come out, and each side has had their final say. If Aiken's ligament tears two years from now and the number 2 pick from the 2015 draft is tearing up AA ball then the very people who are mad at Luhnow right now could be singing his praises.
Even if all of this turns out to be the case, should the team have let Aiken walk? When they lost him, they also lost Nix and Marshall, effectively punting on a good portion of their top talent picks. For a team that is focused on rebuilding through youth, that doesn't seem like a very good idea. Who knows? maybe Aiken turns out to be a freak of nature and simply ends up having a great baseball career. Through it all, you can't help but feel bad for the kid. it seems like he and his family took the business negotiations a bit too personally. There are plenty of people out there who are wishing that someone "insulted" them by offering them $3-5 Million dollars to play a kids' game. That's life changing money. Aiken should have taken it, put the chip on his shoulder like many athletes do and used it as motivation to get an even bigger payday down the road. Hopefully everything works out for him, if he keeps pitching like he has been he will get his just rewards.
As for the Astros? Look, sometimes you can get too bogged down into cost-benefit analysis to realize what you are doing. Reputation is worth something, and even though the Astros may not put a dollar amount on it, players absolutely will. Was breaking a verbal agreement with a top draft pick really a good business idea? The way this shook out may very well scare a few players into refusing to negotiate with the team pre-draft in fear of being hung out to dry like Aiken, effectively telling the team not to waste the pick on them. For young players on the team who enter free agency for the first time, are they really going to be willing to sign a "hometown discount" to play for a team that has acted so miserly toward them and others in the past? As for free agents, the Astros already have to pay a premium for talent to come play for them, the Aiken saga sure doesn't help their image on the big league level either.
This was a very unfortunate situation for both sides. It's a cautionary tale for the need of having more medical transparency for every player before the draft, and one for young players whose agents skimp on medical details pre-draft. For a team's front office, it's also a cautionary tale about greed. The fact is, every player comes with risk. Every scout, every front office, every media personality agrees with this. Every transaction you make with a player comes with some risk. Despite this, left-handed pitchers that throw north of 95 mph don't come along everyday. That's why you take a risk on one that does. That's why you choose whether to draft college or high school players. The Astros know this, but it became a problem when the front office decided that they could use this until-now unknown risk about Aiken's ligament as leverage to lower his slot bonus, and use it to sign Nix and Marshall. Is it a smart play, or was it just plain greedy? For a team that is already loaded with talent in the minors, the front office had to go the extra mile to squeeze out one extra prospect from this year's draft, and now they ended up losing all three of them. Sometimes it doesn't matter how smart you are, or how much you've analyzed the situation to determine the best outcome, greed is greed, and the reason we're all human is because we can fall prey to it.
Good luck Jeff Luhnow and good luck Brady Aiken, greed and ego may have kept you two apart (and given Astros fans a heart attack), but hopefully fortune will see you both have success in your future endeavors. As for next year's draft? Let's stay away from pitchers.