7/19/2014 12:43 A.M. ET
Astros miss chance to sign top pick Aiken
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Did the Houston Astros really lose 17-year-old left-hander Brady Aiken, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, over $1.5 million? Here's hoping they understand how bad that looks. Let's get some perspective on what $1.5 million means in the larger scheme of a baseball team's budget.
First, there's reliever Jesse Crain. The Astros signed him last winter for $3.25 million. Crain has spent the entire season on the disabled list. Houston also signed journeymen relievers Chad Qualls and Matt Albers last winter, and the club is paying them a combined $5 million this season.
Nothing against those three guys, but they're not one-tenth of one percent as important to the franchise as Aiken might have been. Even on a club with baseball's lowest payroll ($45 million), the Astros didn't need to take a huge leap from their final offer of $5 million to the $6.5 million it would have taken to close the deal. Houston just shouldn't have lost this kid over that amount of money.
Just six weeks ago, the Astros were openly and proudly comparing Aiken to Clayton Kershaw and Andy Pettitte.
"He's as advanced as any high school left-hander I've ever seen," general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
Take a moment to wrap your mind around those words. On a club that hasn't been to the postseason in nine years, a club that has averaged 108 losses the last three seasons, Aiken represented additional hope.
At a time when the Astros clearly were making progress with the arrival of youngsters George Springer and Jon Singleton, with 19-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa on the fast track, Aiken could have been part of the rebirth of an entire franchise.
To the Astros, Aiken was potentially a prototype No. 1 starter, and shortly after those pronouncements, they agreed to pay him $6.5 million. That's a ton of money for a 17-year-old kid, but it's also around $1.4 million below the $7.9 million slot price allotted for the No. 1 pick. So even at $6.5 million, Houston was getting a bargain.
And then, when Aiken and his family flew to Houston for the big announcement, the Astros did an MRI of the kid's left elbow. Whether they should have done this MRI way before Draft day is an interesting question.
There was no reason to think Aiken might be injured, because he was throwing free and easy in his final high school start, clocked by some at 97 mph. In fact, the Astros explained how often they'd seen him pitch and how much they appreciated that his workload had been closely monitored. Maybe there's no such thing as a perfect No. 1 pick, but Aiken seemed pretty close.
This is where the story gets murky. The Astros believe the MRI revealed an abnormality in the ulnar collateral ligament in Aiken's left elbow.
They apparently did not claim he was injured. They simply saw something on the MRI that prompted them to think he might be injured at some point in the future. Aiken's side emphatically disputed that anything showed up indicating he might be more susceptible to an injury. They apparently had orthopedists to support their opinion.
Anyway, the Astros backed away from the $6.5 million offer and wanted to renegotiate downward. If they'd stopped right there, they might simply have had a difference of opinion about the health of Aiken's elbow.
But Houston did something that apparently infuriated Aiken and his advisor, Casey Close. If the club could sign Aiken for, say, $5 million instead of $6.5 million, that would leave almost $3 million to spend on prep pitchers Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall, the team's fifth-round pick and 21st-round pick, respectively. To turn one slot into three players with very high ceilings would thrill the Astros.
Aiken refused to play this game. He believed he had a deal for $6.5 million. And that was a discount. Aiken also believed that he had passed the physical.
Before the 5 p.m. ET deadline on Friday for signing members of the 2014 Draft class, Houston was cautiously optimistic that it could haul in Aiken, Nix and Marshall.
Only Aiken wouldn't play, Luhnow was forced to make his final offers via voicemail, and the No. 1 overall pick wouldn't bite. That a kid would walk away from $5 million, even if it was $1.5 million less than the deal he thought he had, speaks volumes about how he felt things were handled.
Meanwhile, there's Nix. As negotiations bogged down with Aiken, Luhnow was forced to rescind a reported $1.5 million offer to Nix because he hadn't been able to sign Aiken. When Aiken didn't sign, the Astros lost all their $7.9 million No. 1 pick slot money. So Nix got caught in a terrible place. He was a kid who'd done nothing but accept an offer that suddenly vanished.
If Luhnow had it all to do over again, he might do everything differently. If he really thought Aiken was a high-risk signing, why would he offer him $5 million? Luhnow might wish he'd stayed with the $6.5 million deal he originally negotiated. That original deal would have given him enough money to sign Nix, too.
So now, there could be grievances filed over the entire matter, especially over Houston pulling out of the Nix deal.
Luhnow released a statement defending his handling of the negotiations, saying he did nothing wrong and kept Major League Baseball in the loop every step of the way.
Two months ago, the Astros had all kinds of momentum on their side. They were playing better. Their young talent was impressive. Suddenly, they didn't seem too far away.
Then they were embarrassed that they allowed their internal message board to get hacked, revealing the details of what other general managers believed were confidential trade discussions.
These are people who fancy themselves the smartest guys in the room. Suddenly, the hacked message board made them look vulnerable.
And now Houston is just the third team in history unable to sign an overall No. 1 pick. Building a great Minor League system is way more than about any single player, and the Astros will have the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft.
But this is the kind of thing that does more than slow the franchise's momentum toward being competitive. To Aiken -- and others in the industry -- there may be questions about whether Luhnow negotiated the original deal in good faith, and that kind of damage that can take years to repair.
Luhnow will have plenty of chances to do just that in the years ahead. He has said many times that rebuilding a franchise isn't an easy process. Luhnow was reminded of that on Friday.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.