Friday's 5 p.m. ET signing deadline passed with the Astros failing to sign 2014 number one overall draft pick Brady Aiken, as well as two other draftees whose bonuses were affected by the team's attempt to sign Aiken below the $7.9 million allotted slot value via the draft bonus pool system. Houston will have the number two overall pick in next year's draft as compensation for not signing Aiken, and may wind up with the number one pick anyway for an unprecedented fourth straight year if it once again finishes with the majors' worst record. Even so, the loss of this crop of top-end talent is a significant blow to the team's rebuilding effort and likely to the credibility general manager Jeff Luhnow's regime as well.
According to the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drelich, the Astros' final offer to Aiken, a 17-year-old lefthander from San Diego, was $5 million, less than the $6.5 million he had agreed to on June 7, shortly after he was drafted. Team doctors reportedly discovered an abnormality in Aiken's elbow during his post-draft physical, namely a congenitally small ulnar collateral ligament. Though Aiken was pitching pain-free and effectively prior to the draft, fears of potential injury troubles in the future led the club at one time to reduce its offer to $3.168 million, the minimum amount that would guarantee the organization received a compensation pick if Aiken didn’t sign.
By not signing Aiken, Houston lost not just the amount it offered him, but its entire $7.9 million allotment for the top pick, leaving the team with a bonus pool of just $5.4 million to pay all its other draftees from the first 10 rounds. As in 2012 and '13, the Astros had hoped to use the savings from the below-slot signing of their first pick to increase the bonuses of lower picks — in this year's case, fifth-rounder Jacob Nix and 21st-rounder Mac Marshall, both pitchers. That smaller amount left them unable to sign Nix and Marshall, who will now pitch at UCLA and LSU, respectively.
All of which suggests that Houston was willing to shoot itself in the foot over a $1.5 million gap between the club and Aiken, an amount that happens to be the annual cost of three minimum-salary major league players. That's mind-boggling given what the team was prepared to spend a month ago.
Aiken is committed to UCLA, but it is possible that the NCAA's ridiculous policy regarding "student-athlete" representation could cost him his eligibility. If he attends school in Westwood, he won't be eligible for the draft again until 2017, after his junior year. Aiken could instead go to a junior college for a year and re-enter the draft in 2015. He could also sign with an independent team, as Aaron Crow, Luke Hochevar and Tanner Scheppers have done in recent years, and still be in next year's draft.
There's one other, more drastic possibility: Aiken could be declared a free agent if he pursues and wins either a lawsuit in the courts or a grievance through the Major League Baseball Players Association. MLBPA shares some fault in the matter, having agreed to the draft spending limits and the bonus pool system in the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, but placed the blame for the contract situation on the Astros. In its statement, the MLBPA said that the affected players "should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers. Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not."
The Astros also released a statement, which read in part: "We are disappointed that we were not able to reach an agreement with Brady Aiken today. ... The Astros' offer to Brady was extremely fair considering all the factors involved in this case. As always, we approached these negotiations in good faith and with the best interests of the Astros' organization in mind, both short-term and long-term. Throughout this entire process, we have absolutely acted within Major League Baseball's rules and guidelines, which MLB has confirmed on numerous occasions."
The failure to sign the three picks won’t make Luhnow’s job any easier, as this will likely hurt his standing with many agents. The GM has faced criticism from former players such as Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris over the team’s analytical bent and its connection to contract negotiations. Luhnow has also come under scrutiny over the delay of George Springer’s promotion to the majors due to his unwillingness to agree to a team-friendly, long-term deal.
For more information and background on Aiken's situation, see our post from earlier today on the stalled negotiations.