This is an article from the April 6, 2015 issue
A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
ON A STILL March afternoon in Texas, Jacob Nix kicks and delivers. Flashing a 94-mph fastball, a hard slider and a sharp curve, he throws six scoreless innings while allowing two base runners and striking out 13. His team holds on for the 7--1 win. It's the kind of performance the Astros had in mind when they selected Nix in the fifth round of the 2014 draft and offered him first-round money.
But Nix is not in Houston. He's 174 miles northwest of Minute Maid Park, at Division III Southwestern University in Austin, playing for the postgrad program at IMG Academy. The guys around him are mostly young strivers taking one last shot at a scholarship after disappointing senior years or kids who played out their high school eligibility but haven't yet graduated.
Most of them only dream of pro ball. Nix, 19, is simply biding his time until he can be drafted again. Last June he became the first player in MLB history to be picked, offered a contract and pass a physical, then have his deal pulled. Nix never envisioned pitching in Texas while the Astros were holding spring training in Florida. But he has no regrets. "After the way things went," he says, "any day of the week I'd take Southwestern over Minute Maid."
NIX WAS ranked as high as the first round on some draft boards heading into his senior season at Los Alamitos (Calif.) High. Major league scouts started coming to his games, and Nix, who committed to UCLA as a sophomore, let it be known that it would take a $1.5 million signing bonus to get him to jilt the Bruins. But Nix says he relied too much on his slider, which caused him to change his delivery to relieve inflammation in his elbow and led to a subpar season (3.16 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP). With the spotty performance and his monetary demands, Nix fell to the first pick in the fifth round, when the Astros took him. Still, as he and his family rushed out to buy Houston hats, Nix thought of the years of 6 a.m. lifts, spring breaks spent at the ballpark and missed parties. "It all paid off," he says. "In that moment it was all worth it."
On June 24, Nix boarded a one-way flight to Houston, where he planned to take his physical, sign his contract and then fly to Kissimmee, Fla., to join the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Astros. At the hotel the Nixes ran into Brady Aiken and his family. The Astros had taken Aiken, a high school lefthander from San Diego, with the first overall pick, and he too was in town for a physical and signing ceremony. The two players, good friends from their days on the 2013 USA Baseball squad that won gold at the U18 World Cup, were set to be introduced together.
The next day, after a doctor gave Nix the thumbs-up and welcomed him to the Astros, his family returned to the hotel only to see the Aikens, including Brady, in the lobby with all their luggage. After an hour of confusion, Houston director of amateur scouting Mike Elias summoned the Nixes to a meeting, where Elias explained that the Astros were very excited to have Nix, but there would be no signing. The team needed to work some things out and would be in touch soon.
Nix flew home with his family and tried to get used to something he hated but would become good at: waiting. "I've never been that kind of guy," he says. "I've always been out doing something."
BEFORE THE current collective bargaining agreement took effect in 2012, teams could select college-bound players and throw money at them to entice them to skip school. This led many players to scare off small-market teams—often the ones with the highest picks and most in need of talent—by making it known that they would require a large bonus to sign. To combat the problem, MLB and the players' association agreed to impose a salary slot for each pick position. If a team signs a player for more than his allotted dollar figure, it has to make up the difference by signing one of its other draftees for that much less. There are heavy penalties for going over the limit, and if teams fail to sign a pick, they don't just lose the player—they lose his slotted amount from their pool.
As the top pick Aiken was slotted for $7.9 million, while Nix's fifth-round spot held a value of $370,500. But the Astros had worked out a preliminary deal to sign Aiken for $6.5 million, allowing them to divert $1.4 million to Nix. Everything looked good until Houston's doctors raised concerns about Aiken's UCL. The team dropped its offer to $3.1 million. Aiken declined. If the Astros didn't sign him by 5 p.m. on July 18, they would lose him and his slot money, which meant signing Nix for so far above his slot value would cost them two future first-round picks.
Nix waited three weeks, to the day of the deadline, when he says he got an email from Astros GM Jeff Luhnow with a revised offer: $616,165. Nix passed and, with the backing of the union, filed a grievance—which jeopardized his NCAA eligibility, locking him out of his UCLA scholarship. He spent six months at home, watching Sons of Anarchy on Netflix and playing catch in the park.
The grievance dragged until mid-December, when the Nixes and the Astros worked out a settlement. (Both sides refuse comment, but the Houston Chronicle has reported that Nix received a six-figure sum.) January came. The NCAA still hadn't ruled on his eligibility, so Nix enrolled at IMG Academy, a pre-K-through-12 sports-focused prep school in Bradenton, Fla., that also offers camps and postgrad programs and is run by the powerful sports agency.
WHEN NIX first stepped on the mound for IMG, on Feb. 5, he was shocked to see nearly 80 scouts crammed behind the backstop. He didn't disappoint them, tossing four scoreless innings with seven strikeouts against Webber International, an NAIA program.
He's continued to impress, showing an improved curveball thanks to a new grip in which he uses the tip of his index finger to spike the ball. He's also learned that he doesn't have to throw his fastball, which tops out at 97 mph, as hard as he can every time. His mechanics have improved, although he still struggles with consistency of release point at times.
It makes sense that Nix is still learning the craft. He had to sit out a full year when he was 12 due to a congenital back problem, since corrected by surgery, and he played catcher until his freshman year, when his team needed an emergency starter. Nix threw a five-inning no-hitter. You can toss your catcher's gear, the coach told him.
He's not taking classes at IMG, and he was rooming with Aiken, who justified the Astros' concerns about him when he had Tommy John surgery last week. Nix, who will head home in May to work out for teams before the draft, is expected to go in the first round and improve upon last year's bonus offer.
There is one team, though, that won't have him on its draft board. Nix did not sign the papers that would allow Houston to redraft him. "I hear nothing but good things about 29 teams," he says. "I just want to get in and start my career."