On the morning of June 4, 40 members of the Houston Astros’ executive suite and scouting department gathered in a dimly lit second-floor conference room in Union Station, which abuts Minute Maid Park and houses the club’s offices, for an important meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the six amateur players who were still in the running to become the Astros’ first overall pick in the 2014 draft, which was to begin the following evening. I was the 41st person in the room, having been given access to the meeting for the purposes of reporting a Sports Illustrated feature on the team’s ongoing rebuilding process, which would become the magazine’s cover story two weeks later.
The men in the room — including general manager Jeff Luhnow and scouting director Mike Elias, along with all of the club’s scouts and analysts and advisors like Craig Biggio and Nolan Ryan — discussed an eclectic group of six potential draft picks. There were two polished college pitchers, North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon and LSU’s Aaron Nola; two high school hitters, Florida’s Nicholas Gordon and California’s Alex Jackson; and two high school pitchers, Tyler Kolek, a righthander from Texas, and Brady Aiken, a southpaw from California.
The Astros’ brass talked about each player, one by one, for about 15 minutes apiece. But even though Gordon and Nola had significant strengths, neither of them seemed likely to become the one-one, as the first pick of the first round is commonly known. So the decision was down to four, though there was one player about whom the room seemed particularly enthusiastic: Aiken, the 17-year-old pitcher from San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High.
The many people in the room who had seen Aiken pitch and who had met him in person couldn’t seem to find a single negative thing to say about him, comparing him to Clayton Kershaw and Andy Pettitte. “Makeup-wise, I feel like it’s Peyton Manning on a surfboard,” said Brad Budzinski, the area scout who had been following him for more than two years. Aiken got up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym and was from an athletic, good family. His mechanics were excellent, suggesting that he wouldn’t be prone to future injury, and his high school coaches had made an effort to control his workload, thereby limiting stress on his young arm. “In his first three seasons on varsity, 72.5 pitches per start,” reported Budzinski. “This year, low 80s, from what I can gather.”
“A lot of people say they want to be a Hall of Famer,” said another scout, “but I believe for this kid it’s a realistic goal, to be one of the best pitchers of all time.” The consensus was that Aiken could be pitching in the majors in just two and a half years – that is, as early as Opening Day of 2017.
Even though just two high school pitchers had ever before gone one-one, and both had flamed out, no one who had been in that meeting was at all surprised the next night when Elias entered the draft room and happily slapped the magnet bearing Aiken’s name atop the Astros’ draft board. “We were extremely excited about it,” Luhnow confirmed again to me earlier this week. Why wouldn’t they have been? They loved everything about Brady Aiken. Everything, that is, that they could see.
Two days after Houston drafted Aiken, the parties agreed in principle to a $6.5 million signing bonus, which was $1.5 million below the league’s assigned slot value but still a fair amount for a high school pitcher, the riskiest category of amateur player. There was, it seemed, only one more thing to be done: A physical, which would include an MRI of his elbow.
So began a chain of events that has been widely deemed a disaster for the rebuilding Astros, one in which they have been accused of acting unethically at best and villainously at worst. It ended at 5 p.m. last Friday, when Aiken officially became the third one-one ever — and the first since 1983 — to not sign with the team that drafted him.
Unlike in the NBA and NFL, there's no pre-draft combine system at which Major League Baseball prospects can have physicals, and they are not otherwise compelled to do so. That means that organizations must draft them based upon information that, despite their best efforts, is necessarily incomplete. The vast majority of the time, post-draft physicals turn up nothing alarming. That apparently proved not to be the case with Aiken's MRI, at least from the Astros’ perspective.
While HIPAA regulations prevent anyone from disclosing anything about Aiken’s exam — and Houston has consistently declined to do so — it seems clear that the MRI of Aiken's elbow revealed an abnormality, reportedly a “small” ulnar collateral ligament, which is the ligament that must be repaired in Tommy John surgery. Dr. Josh Dines, who is a leading orthopedic surgeon at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery but was not one of the five doctors with whom Aiken reportedly consulted and has never examined him nor his scans, told me that he has some trouble believing that to be the extent of the issue.
“No baseball player will have a normal MRI,” Dines said. “If someone has a congenitally small ulnar collateral ligament, even if they tear it and you reconstruct it, you can always make it bigger. And it’s almost a foregone conclusion these days that a young pitcher who throws in the upper 90s will at some point have a reconstruction anyway.
“When I read the reports about Aiken, I thought that there might be some concern about the bony anatomy where the ligament attaches, perhaps the medial epicondyle. If that is damaged or abnormal, you’re left with less bone there to reconstruct the ligament, and that can mean that a reconstruction won’t always work. They must have thought, for some reason, that a future reconstruction would not take.”
Aiken is currently healthy, and that is what his advisor, the prominent agent Casey Close, stressed in comments to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com. “Brady has been seen by some of the most experienced and respected orthopedic arm specialists in the country, and all of those doctors have acknowledged that he’s not injured and that he’s ready to start his professional career,” Close told Rosenthal last week.
Read between the lines, however, and you will notice that Close addressed only Aiken’s health at the moment, and not the concept that Aiken’s MRI revealed an abnormality that might unusually harm his career some years down the road — say, by 2017 or so. (Close did not respond to repeated interview requests by SI.com for this story.)
Every club reads MRIs differently and has a different tolerance for potential injury risk. For the Astros, who are maniacally focused on a future in which they hope to have transmogrified from longtime laughingstocks into consistent contenders as quickly as possible, Aiken’s MRI evidently looked like the reddest of flags. They reduced their offer to Aiken to around $3.1 million – and it seems possible that they hoped that he wouldn’t accept it.
That $3.1 million figure is revealing: It represents 40 percent of the assigned slot value for this year’s one-one, which happens to be exactly the percentage that the Collective Bargaining Agreement requires a team to offer in order to receive a compensatory pick next year — and an exceedingly valuable one at that, No. 2 overall — if they failed to sign Aiken. Houston's calculus seemed simple. The team evidently decided that it would rather take its chances with next year’s No. 2 instead of with Brady Aiken, a player whom the organization had loved only weeks before but who had since taken on a different risk profile.
Of course, MLB’s still-new CBA, which was implemented three years ago, made the situation more complicated than that. In an attempt to bolster competitive balance among clubs with divergent resources, the CBA provides each with a pool of money with which to sign its draft picks, based upon the sum of the picks’ assigned slot values. If they exceed their pool, clubs face major penalties.
The Astros had intended to use the money they would save by signing Aiken under slot to land a pair of other high school pitchers — Jacob Nix, a fifth-rounder out of California, and Mac Marshall, a 21st-round pick from Georgia — who had made it known that they would attend UCLA and LSU, respectively, unless they received bonuses that significantly exceeded their draft positions. It was a strategy the Astros had successfully pursued two years earlier, when they cheaply signed their one-one, Carlos Correa, and used the extra funds to sign high schoolers Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz, too. It is also a strategy that has since been exploited by several other clubs since, and it can even be argued that the CBA rules are designed to give an incentive to teams to do similarly.
Nix, who is also being advised by Close, had even agreed to a $1.5 million deal (the Cardinals signed the pick directly before him, Florida Atlantic pitcher Austin Gomber, for his slot value of $374,100), passed his physical and had flown to Houston with his family to sign his contract. However, due to the rules, that money was only theoretical until Aiken also signed; if he didn’t, then the Astros would not have enough pool space to afford him. Nix was undoubtedly well aware of this, as he and Close had in fact attempted to leverage the rules, as well as the threat of going to college, to command a contract worth nearly five times his slot value. When the deadline passed last Friday and Aiken wasn’t an Astro, that meant that his full $7.9 million slot value counted against Houston’s pool. Nix’s money evaporated, as did Marshall’s. They weren’t signed, either.
On the day of the signing deadline, last Friday, Houston made what seemed to be a curious set of moves for an organization run by experienced businessmen who are well versed in analytics and the science of valuation. They submitted three offers, each better than the last, to Aiken’s camp, in a final effort to bring him on board. The last of them, which reportedly came in with about five minutes to spare, was for $5 million. They did not receive a response to any of them. Aiken, apparently, had made up his mind.
What were the Astros thinking? The most likely answer is that they were not impervious to the torrent of negative public sentiments that had flooded into their offices once it had started to seem possible that they would not sign their No. 1 pick, a player about whom they had spoken in such glowing terms just weeks before. Bad PR came at them from all directions, and it had a real value of its own. It came from fans who were sick of rooting for what has been the worst team in baseball for three years running; from the media; from agents, especially Close; and from the players’ union.
“It is disappointing on any number of levels to think what has happened in that situation,” said union chief Tony Clark last week. “The manipulation that we think happened in this case is going to lead us to have some conversations.”
Once the deadline passed, that negative reaction crescendoed. “I do feel genuine empathy for the players involved,” Luhnow said. “It was bad luck all around. I understand that from a fan’s perspective, we got nothing.”
It was, indeed, a black eye for the Astros. And yet, black eyes fade. Conventional wisdom holds that the Astros not only sparked widespread anger, but also cost themselves a trio of potentially valuable pitchers. In other words, they harmed their rebuilding process for the sake of $1.5 million dollars, a pittance in terms of the finances of pro baseball. But it wasn’t really about penny pinching. It was largely about the compensatory No. 2 overall pick they would not receive next year if they had signed Aiken.
The decision really came down to whether the Astros felt that a presumably healthy No. 2 in June of 2015 — in a draft in which they will also have a second very high pick (Houston currently has baseball’s third-worst record), and the resulting enormous amount of combined pool money to work with — would be worth sacrificing for a Brady Aiken whom they apparently truly believed to be damaged, as well as Nix and perhaps Marshall. Despite their late attempt to sign Aiken and reverse the public narrative that had developed regarding their operations, it seems clear which side of the decision the Astros ultimately preferred.
“All the outcomes won’t present themselves for years to come," Luhnow said. He is correct. Grievances might be filed by Aiken or Nix. Perhaps players will one day submit to pre-draft physicals. Perhaps the current CBA, which has revealed numerous unintended consequences, will be re-imagined. Perhaps Brady Aiken will be starting in 2017, become the next Andy Pettitte and pitch for 18 largely healthy years in the big leagues, if not for Houston.
One thing that seems clear is that the idea that the Aiken affair has significantly damaged the Astros is overblown, for now anyway. “We’re going to be fine going forward,” Luhnow said. “This is an organization on the rise.” It can be argued that they pushed the rules, but they did not violate them. In fact, it is quite possible that they operated no differently from the way the majority of the league’s teams would have, had they detected a landmine on an MRI. And while the prominence of the pick affected might be unprecedented, the process wasn’t. Just last year, the Marlins selected pitcher Matt Krook 35th overall. Krook failed his physical after he’d agreed to terms and wasn’t signed. Then he tore his UCL after pitching 45 innings for the University of Oregon.
With the No. 2 pick next year, the Astros might select a prospect who is even better than Brady Aiken, or perhaps a college player who is even closer to contributing to a team they believe isn’t so far from contending. They haven’t lost much, if anything, by way of value, and winning would go a long way to erase even perceived past transgressions, just as it will their recent history of losing.
Even so, it is hard not to feel for the players involved, particularly Aiken. In a span of a month and a half, he went from being the one-one and on the cusp of a $6.5 million windfall to a player who hasn’t earned a cent from playing baseball, due to an anatomical issue that he likely didn’t know about, has yet to have any effect on him (his fastball touched 97 during his final high school game) and might never do so. As is usually the case when a 17-year-old finds himself in a contretemps with a multi-billion dollar industry, the real loser appears to be not the team, but the teenager.