On Brady Aiken, the Astros, and Our Lack of Knowledge

Yesterday, 2014’s top overall draft pick Brady Aiken announced that he had undergone Tommy John Surgery, leaving him as a bit of a lottery ticket for this upcoming draft. Aiken, however, made sure to emphasize that he doesn’t regret walking away from the Astros final $5 million offer on the day of the signing deadline.

Since last summer, a lot of people have wondered how I could have turned down a multi-million-dollar signing bonus after being picked first in the draft. Now, I know they’ll probably be wondering about it again. I can honestly say I don’t regret not signing. It was a very difficult decision, but it also was an informed decision based on circumstances only a few people know the truth about. My family and I planned for all the possible outcomes. We weighed the pros and cons, talked with friends and mentors and doctors whose opinions we value and discussed it over a number of family dinners. This wasn’t a decision we made lightly.

The money wasn’t the only factor to consider. I wanted to play somewhere I felt comfortable, with a support system I felt would lay the groundwork for a successful and long career. Making sure I had that in place was worth the frustration of not being able to get on with my career sooner.

My family was smart, and we accounted for all of the possible risks. Having gone through this process, I really encourage other players to take the time to be fully educated about what they are getting into and to plan for the unexpected. Having a solid plan helped me through the ups and downs. Even now, I know I made the decision that made the most sense for my future.

The second paragraph is the latest in a long list of complaints Aiken and his representatives — primarily Casey Close — have lobbed at the Astros. It is not news that the negotiations between the Astros and Aiken’s camp were contentious, and as Mike Petriello wrote after it all fell apart, both sides came out of it looking poorly. And while yesterday’s news certainly seems to validate the Astros medical concerns about the risk potential of Aiken’s elbow, I have to mostly agree with Evan Drellich that using this news to proclaim that the Astros were right and Aiken’s camp were wrong is drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence to support it. Let’s just quote Drellich’s piece:

What did the Astros believe?

There appears to be a public assumption that the Astros’ stance was that Aiken would fall apart, that they wanted nothing to do with him.

The situation wasn’t nearly that black and white. In simple terms, the team had to weigh the value of signing Aiken vs. the value of receiving the second overall pick in 2015. (Baseball Prospectus had an in-depth piece on the negotiation logic.)

The fact that the Astros offered Aiken $5 million on the final day of negotiations, above the minimum $3.1 million they had to offer him to be compensated with the second overall draft pick this year, is important. If the team were so sure Aiken’s health would fail, why would they raise the offer?

(An interesting but impossible to prove counter argument would be that the Astros reacted to public opinion in raising the offer, against their better judgment.)

“Basically, we tried to engage the other side, Casey Close three times today,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said July 18, right after an afternoon deadline passed. “Made three increasing offers and never received a counter, really they just never engaged, for whatever reason there was no interest. There just didn’t appear interest to sign on their side.

“Very disappointed. I think this is a player we wanted obviously we took him 1-1. You know we would have liked to have signed him and (Jacob) Nix and (Mac) Marshall, all three of ‘em. But you can’t do that without the other side wanting to be a part of it, so we move on.

“We made that offer a while back, the 40 percent offer. But we came up from that three times without ever receiving a counter.”

The fact that the Astros made multiple offers to Aiken is a point in favor of the fact that Aiken had some value even with the medical concerns, but we also have to remember that the Aiken negotiations weren’t being held in a vacuum; the Astros needed Aiken to sign in order to have enough money to sign Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall. They weren’t just making offers based on Aiken’s own personal risk/reward, but on the total value of being able to sign Aiken, Nix, and Marshall while staying within their bonus pool allotment. If they put a high enough value on Nix and Marshall, it could have been a net positive to pay Aiken even if they were 100% convinced that he was going to need Tommy John surgery and wouldn’t have been worth his own bonus, so long as it left them enough money to sign two other players who they thought they were getting value on.

Of course, we can’t know if the Astros were actually 100% certain that he would need this surgery. It’s almost impossible to be sure of anything in life, and while Aiken’s ligament did tear last week, the fact that something happens does not prove that it was an inevitability. We can add this data point to the list of things we know and say it’s now more likely that the Astros correctly analyzed his risk profile than it was before he blew out his arm, but this doesn’t prove that they got it right. It suggests it, to some slightly larger degree than previously known, but just as you don’t want to judge a decision by its outcome on the baseball field, so too should we not assume that the Astros definitely had this figured out just because Aiken’s elbow did eventually give out.

And that’s the problem with drawing conclusions from our perspective; there are just too many things we can’t know about this entire situation. Something clearly happened between Jeff Luhnow (or one of his employees) and Casey Close that rubbed both of them the wrong way, but what it was and who was to blame is something that we have no real evidence of. We could build a speculative case against the Astros based on the fact that this isn’t the only time they’ve had some issues with negotiating contracts with players, but even if the Astros somehow screwed up the Ryan Vogelsong deal, that doesn’t prove they were definitively to blame in the Brady Aiken situation.

We can guess at things. We can attempt to decide which side’s version of self-serving comments we put more credibility into, and maybe even be comfortable with our speculation about which side was more likely at fault in all of this.

But the reality is that it’s all just uneducated guessing. The real evidence, the kind of stuff that would allow us to form opinions that are worth anything, is not public and almost certainly never will be. So we’re just left with just enough information to be dangerous. There is enough out there to give us a false sense of certainty that we can have a real opinion on what probably happened, but not enough to really support a strong opinion either way. The amount of information we have about this situation is the equivalent of knowing a batter’s batting average with runners on base in Wednesday afternoon games.

While it’s tempting to say that this news proves the Astros were in the right all along, I don’t think we can actually say that with any confidence. We just don’t know enough. All we can really say is that something went down, we don’t know who is to blame, and the whole situation sucked for everyone involved.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

Been waiting all day for the Fangraphs take on Aiken’s TJ after I saw about it yesterday. Seems like you hit it right on Dave. My initial reaction when I saw the news was “Well I guess the Astros knew what they were doing all along” but then I actually thought about it and realized they still offered him 5 million to sign, so who knows what they really thought. Pretty much all we can say for certain is that the Brady Aiken saga just keeps getting more and more interesting. Wonder what his draft stock will look like now.

Mike F
8 years ago
Reply to  wildcard09

I’m a little confused by this line of thinking about “they still offered him $5M to sign.” Based on what they said, they viewed him as a higher TJ risk (due to the size of his UNL*). So, they cut their offer down based on that. That doesn’t mean Aiken is worthless/that they didn’t want him (and he doesn’t become a lemon even if he has TJ either, obviously). They just didn’t want him at $6.5M due to the increased risk.

I agree with the sentiment that we don’t really know if the Astros were right about this, but I don’t see how them offering him another series of contracts under $6.5M means they were acting irrationally.

8 years ago
Reply to  Mike F

It’s not so much “they still offered him 5 mill” as it is they jumped from 3.1 to 5 mill. It seems like they may have initially overreacted to his physical by offering the minimum, then either they realized he would never sign for that low, or they reconsidered and decided he would still be worth the risk and offered 5 mill. Or like mentioned in the article they were secretly hoping he would turn down the 5 mill and just offered it to save face. The main point is that we really have no idea. The draft will be interesting though, he could be a potential sleeper if he falls in the draft and then comes all the way back from TJ.

8 years ago
Reply to  wildcard09

I’m pretty sure they offered the minimum as a placeholder. They needed time to know how much Mac Marshall was willing to sign before giving Aiken the final offer. Because originally Mac Marshall was suppose to be passed.

So common sense would suggest the order was something like this.

1. Astros found out something was wrong, reduced the offer at first to minimum required to get the #2 next year while finding out more details.
2. Went to Marshall and asked how much it would take to sign him.
3. Went back to Aiken and told him they’d give him the max amount which to allow them to sign Aiken, Marshal, and Nix. This amount happened to $5mil. I have no reason to doubt that if Marshall asked and deserved more, say, an extra half mil, the Astros final offer to Aiken would’ve been $4.5mil instead.

While the media is focusing so much on the money, to the Astros it’s not money, it’s players. It’s being able to sign an extra player to hedge against Aiken’s injury risk. The Astros like other major league teams probably could care less about the difference of a mil or two because the draft pool is so suppressed anyway.

To the Astros, the money issue is almost a non-factor given that they literally gave Nix $1.5mil as part of the walking away from Aiken. So if you want to make it a money issue, they ended up losing money in this whole process for nothing.