This was supposed to be the year that things started heading in the right direction for the Houston Astros, you know. After bottoming out in 2013 with a third straight 100-loss season, a season-ending 16-game losing streak, 0.0 television ratings, and endless accusations of “not trying to win,” they were expected to at least trend upwards in 2014. Thanks to importing major league players in Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman, welcoming top prospects George Springer and Jon Singleton, and seeing unexpected steps forward from Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel, it largely has. The Astros are still a bad team, but they aren’t even last in their own division, and they’re merely within the range of other bad teams, as opposed to drifting on their own private island of awful.
But despite some on-field positives, it’s still been a tough few weeks for the organization. The leaked Ground Control files were an embarrassment. Stories began to pop up about potential hits to the organization’s reputation thanks to their non-traditional methods. 2012 top pick Carlos Correa had a successful season cut short by a broken leg. 2013 top pick Mark Appel has struggled badly in A-ball. Now, there’s this: Casey Close, the agent for 2014 top overall pick Brady Aiken, is criticizing the Astros for how they’ve handled negotiations with both Aiken and another of his Astros-drafted clients, fifth-round high school pitcher Jacob Nix.
To catch you up for those just joining us:
- On June 7, two days after the draft, Jim Callis reported that the Astros and Aiken had agreed to terms including a $6.5 million bonus, tying Jameson Taillon for the largest bonus ever given to a high school pitcher, but still under the $7,922,710 slot for the 1-1 pick.
- On July 7, Jon Heyman reported that an “elbow ligament” issue had been discovered by the Astros in a pre-deal medical exam, and that since the contract hadn’t been officially finalized, they’d lowered their offer to $5m. (Some reports dispute whether a $5m option was offered, but it no longer seems on the table.)
- Tuesday, Ken Rosenthal had Close’s reaction, expressing his displeasure with how the Astros are “conducting business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the draft and the 29 other clubs who have followed those same rules,” and noting that a revised offer for $3.16m was extended to make sure Houston would get a compensation pick next year.
Needless to say, it’s getting ugly, and with a Friday afternoon deadline looming to finalize the contract, all sides are in a tough position.
Most of the public opinion seems to be anti-Astros, and it’s not hard to see why. A huge company and a teenager who just graduated high school had a handshake agreement, and the agreement is coming apart not because the teenager changed his mind, but because the huge company is going back on their word. Absent any further facts, most people are going to take the side of the teen — two teens, really, because Nix has gotten caught up in this mess as well. Specific to the Astros, there’s obviously plenty of people in and outside the game who would be all too happy to see their unprecedented “tear it down” strategy fail, and especially to see the self-described nerds in the organization exit the game with their tails between their legs, properly shamed for trying to change the way things are done.
Maybe the Astros really are being underhanded here, as many seem to think, using the flimsiest excuse possible to save a few bucks. It’s certainly a difficult sell to claim that Aiken’s elbow is unhealthy, considering that he struck out 14 and hit 98 mph in his final appearance of the season and never reported any pain. If there was something in the exam that seems unusual, well, find any pitcher of any skill level that won’t have something odd you could point to on a scan. Aiken and his camp are extremely unhappy, and they’re absolutely right to feel that way.
Without knowing the facts, we can’t say for sure. Anyone who isn’t a medical doctor who hasn’t examined Aiken themselves can offer only speculation, and that Aiken’s high school coach and personal trainer both claim he’s healthy doesn’t really add anything to the conversation. Nor does Close’s word carry a lot of weight here, and that has nothing to do with his integrity, as he’s very well-respected. It has everything to do with the fact that his job is to get two of his clients paid, and anything he says that admits a problem with Aiken’s arm goes directly against that goal. Besides, there’s obviously different ways to read arm problems; it may be that the Astros have found something they consider to be a problem in the near future, if not immediately. One source told the Houston Chronicle that “he may have some of the UCL, but not much,” which is absolutely terrifying. It’s interesting to note that Rosenthal’s piece describes Close as saying that Aiken is asymptomatic and ready to pitch, which is not the same thing as refuting the Astros’ supposed findings.
It’s also not as though teams have never dropped agreed-upon offers upon finding issues in exams. Remember Barret Loux? He was the No. 6 overall pick by Arizona in 2010, and the sides agreed to a $2m signing bonus. After finding what they considered severe arm problems in a pre-draft exam, they withdrew the offer, preferring to take a compensation pick the next season instead. (They got Archie Bradley with the compensation pick. That worked out well.) Declared a free agent, Loux pitched three minor league seasons with the Rangers and Cubs, and, as Arizona feared, he blew out his arm and underwent Tommy John surgery in March. In 1996, R.A. Dickey‘s bonus was reduced by more than $700,000 after an exam revealed he had no UCL. Seven years later, Tim Stauffer’s bonus dropped from $2.6m to $750,000 after a report of shoulder weakness. Teams can’t get their doctors to give full examinations until after a player has been drafted, so until there’s more of an NFL combine type of situation, this sort of thing happens.
Now in those situations, there seemed to be less conflict about the accuracy of the medical report, making them not fully applicable here. (To use a non-draft scenario, look at Baltimore backing out of a deal with Grant Balfour last winter over medical concerns that the pitcher disagreed with; Balfour landed in Tampa Bay, where his velocity has been down and he’s been awful.) But if the Astros truly believe that there’s a problem, then what they’re doing is not unprecedented — and if Aiken’s camp believes he’s fully healthy, then they should rightfully be infuriated by the sudden decrease of millions of dollars after an agreement was reached. None of us know the truth about the medical exams, so we can’t speculate. Here’s what we can do, though: point yet another accusatory finger at the broken system that has brought us here.
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Think about why the Astros would drop their offer and potentially damage their relationship with a player who hopefully should be a big part of their organization for years to come. When you hear terms like “lowball,” as this San Diego Union-Tribune article from last week says multiple times with apparently no understanding of how baseball negotiating works or that Nix was offered a deal nearly five times above slot, you think they’re being cheap. You think they’re trying to pocket the money, as so many have accused them of doing over the past few years rather than spending on big league talent.
Now think about just how little $1.5m — the difference between the agreed-upon deal and the reported discounted offer — or even $3.4m, which is the difference between the first deal and the reported $3.1m offer, is. In baseball terms, it’s absolutely nothing. It’s a half-season of a backup outfielder. Even within the context of a 17-year-old who has a long way to go before he’s a big leaguer, it’s very, very little. Unless they were convinced that Aiken was so injured that he could not be a productive asset, there’s no reason for the Astros to not just stick to the agreement and avoid all the terrible PR this is bringing. A few million isn’t nothing, but it’s not worth this, either.
Of course, that not how this works. It’s not about taking money from the hands of a teenager and putting it back into the owner’s pockets, as seems to be insinuated in some of these stories. It’s about allocating the limited dollars they have available, because as we can very clearly see in Rosenthal’s article, the effects that the Aiken disagreement is having on Nix is part of what’s making Close and the player’s union unhappy:
Close and the union are particularly upset that the Astros have tied the signing of Aiken to the signing of Nix, who remains in limbo despite passing his physical.
If we can all agree on anything, it’s that this stinks for Nix, who agreed to sign and now can’t, pending the resolution of something that has nothing to do with him. That’s going to be a theme, because this is also due in no small part to a system that he had no say in shaping, but that is considerably affecting his ability to enter the professional ranks.
When the new CBA was agreed to following the 2011 season, baseball fans celebrated the fact that the game would continue uninterrupted, but perhaps not enough understood just how much it restricted the freedom to spend on the draft. Teams now had to stick to draft pools for their top-10 selections, with severe penalties should they go over. For the Astros this year, that number for 10 players is a total of $13,362,200, with the No.1 slot valued at $7.9 million. When you hear that a team “lowballed” a top pick by not offering him the full slot, it’s actually a strategy to be able to spend that money elsewhere — say, for example, giving a later-round player an above-slot deal to convince him to forgo college. (It’s also why the conversation about how much more Aiken would make as a free agent seems misguided, because this system artificially depresses the free market, meaning while that’s true for Aiken, it’s also true for dozens of other highly-regarded draftees.)
At the time, Dave Cameron summed up how awful it looked like it would be:
These penalties are so severe that they essentially eliminate any benefit a team would get from signing a player for more than the slot recommendation, so they equate to de facto hard slotting. Teams no longer have the ability to spend heavily to convince players who were strongly committed to colleges (or other sports) to forego those options and begin a career as a professional.
More or less, that’s what’s happened. With the institution of the draft pools, teams have to consider how some deals affect other deals. Despite Close’s assertion that “if every player was contingent on another player, we would have no draft, we would have no draft pool, we would have no signings,” we see it all the time. Just last week, the White Sox signed No. 2 pick Carlos Rodon for an over-slot $6.5m bonus, basically using up their draft pool elsewhere and saying “that’s what’s left.” (Reportedly, it was just $585 under what the Sox could pay without going over and being penalized.) If baseball and the union don’t like that every draftee can’t negotiate with absolutely no impact from other draftees, perhaps they shouldn’t have agreed to a system where there’s a single pool of money for multiple players.
So sure, the Astros could simply pay Aiken full price, keep a player with a potential injury problem, and maybe miss out on Nix. Or, they could pay him full price, get Nix and 21st-rounder Mac Marshall (another player with a tough college commitment), and be penalized for it. Or, they could cut Aiken down and use that money to sign Nix and Marshall.
Not available to them is the best option: Sign all three at negotiated prices, value pools be damned, without fear of being penalized in next year’s draft.
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I’m not apologizing for the Astros here, because we don’t know what their thinking is, and we can’t say with utmost certainty that they’re acting ethically. It’s not out of the question that they agreed with Aiken, then saw an unexpected chance to sign Nix and Marshall, who many thought couldn’t be bought out of college commitments, and scrambled at the last minute to find a way to knock Aiken down enough to afford all three. With the numbers perhaps working out just a little too well there, it’s easy to think it’s a conspiracy.
But think about how bad this has become. Now, the Astros have a No. 1 pick who has to wonder what’s going on in his arm and may be poisoned towards the idea of ever being an Astro. They have to worry that Aiken could just walk away and take a huge chunk of Houston’s available draft pool with him — remember, if Aiken goes, his $7.9m pool allocation goes with him — and perhaps most importantly, they have to deal with another hit to their reputation, and at least one agent who probably won’t be taking his clients to Houston any time soon. That’s really worth a few million bucks? Of course not, and so it’s hard to see this being done without a very valid concern about Aiken’s health. It’s a bad look, to be sure, and potentially not worth it even if Houston is squeaky-clean in all of this. I just haven’t seen evidence that it’s an unethical path, with the exception of the impact this has on Nix.
Close claims that no other team would act like this, though MLB has confirmed that Houston has broken no rules and GM Jeff Luhnow claims he’s abided both by baseball rules and federal HIPAA regulations. If that’s the case, then perhaps the problem isn’t with the Astros. It’s with the system that seemed like a bad idea from the second it was put into place.