Astros Fail to Sign Brady Aiken

Well, it’s over. As of 5 p.m. ET today, the signing deadline for players from last month’s draft had passed, and for the first time since Tim Belcher in 1983, the first overall pick, Brady Aiken, had failed to sign. The whole saga has been more than adequately covered elsewhere, so I won’t bother rehashing it. But the instinct of a lot of people immediately following the announcement that Aiken hadn’t signed was to rake the Astros through the proverbial coals. This may surprise a lot of people, but that reaction might be an overreaction. Or it might not. None of us have any idea, really.

The Astros obviously had issues with Aiken’s medical results. There’s a rumor that he has an unusually small UCL, which despite not being currently damaged, could prove weak in the future given the amount of stress put on that ligament. When it’s put like that, it sounds like pretty rational thinking. Considering the incredible wave of pitching injuries that have affected just about every team recently, teams have a right to be concerned about any flaw. But at the same time, there is another argument that says that a small UCL (or whatever is wrong with Aiken) isn’t nearly as big of a deal as the Astros are making it out to be, and they are squeezing Aiken out of millions without much reason. That also sounds like a reasonable argument. I have no idea who to believe either.

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two arguments. I find it hard to believe that the Astros would just be trying to screw Aiken out of so much money without cause, especially after the two sides verbally agreed to $6.5 million a couple days after the draft. But I’m also not convinced that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Aiken’s elbow, as his side claims. Either way, it seems unlikely that this failure to sign ends up well for both sides.

Looking at it from the Astros’ perspective, they just missed on a guy that general manager Jeff Luhnow called the most advanced prep pitcher he’d ever seen. While that might seem like hyperbole, and probably is, it’s not like Aiken was picked first because of signability; MLB’s tougher slotting system has made that a less common route than it was in the past. Though Carlos Rodon came into the year as the consensus number one pick, Aiken surpassed him this spring after his stuff jumped up a level and Rodon’s performance spilled from his sophomore year at NC State. Aiken is extremely talented, and now he won’t be an Astro because of a condition that might be an injury, but not one that actually is an injury.

That said, it’s not as if the Astros totally lose out because of this. As compensation for failing to sign Aiken, Houston will get the second selection in next year’s draft, which essentially guarantees them of another elite talent. Plus they’ll have their own normal first rounder, which has an excellent shot of landing in the top five (again). Who knows, maybe they’ll get a better player than Brady Aiken at number two next year. Maybe they’ll get Daz Cameron, whom I had an unabashed man crush on. But as of today, the Astros look like they’ve missed out on a great prospect for a perhaps illegitimate reason.

As compelling as looking at this from the Astros’ point of view is, I find it even more compelling from Brady Aiken’s angle. First of all, it takes some balls to turn down the kind of money Houston offered, even the money on the table after the possible injury was found by team doctors. The minimum Houston had to extend to Aiken to receive its compensation pick for not signing him still was north of $3 million. Let’s say this condition turns into an injury. Aiken probably isn’t going to get a $3 million offer again if he needs Tommy John or already has TJ under his resume. Nationals’ prospect Lucas Giolito, every bit the prospect Aiken is, couldn’t get $3 million after it was discovered that he needed elbow surgery shortly after he was drafted.

But money aside, who knows what Aiken will do from here. He has a few options. First is stick with his commitment and attend UCLA. But there might be complications with that since Aiken obviously has had an agent throughout this whole process and the NCAA hates kids having help with the biggest financial decision of their life. So maybe he’ll become a Bruin, but it’s unlikely that he is able to pitch without at least an investigation. Worst case scenario if he chooses that route is that he is declared ineligible and has to reenter next year’s draft. There’s a good chance he wouldn’t go in the top five in that scenario since he’ll have just gone a year without pitching competitively, and it’s not like teams will magically forget about whatever it actually was that scared the Astros off.

Aiken’s second option is to go to junior college for a year and reenter the 2015 draft. This is probably Aiken’s safest play, if perhaps the least desirable on a personal level. He’d miss out on spending time on UCLA’s campus, but if he’s focused on getting into pro ball with as little strain on his arm as possible, spending one year at JUCO proving that he’s healthy would keep his stock pretty static. And yet, should he choose this option, whatever team drafts him next year may find the same thing the Astros found last month, and would probably try to draw a hard line in negotiations. If next spring we’re talking about Brady Aiken, junior college pitcher, then if nothing else, we’ll have the most compelling JUCO player since Bryce Harper.

Aiken’s final option, and the one that comes with by far the most questions is the possibility of him being made a free agent by MLB. While an unsigned player normally would never be allowed to just become a free agent, MLB set somewhat of a precedent for a player in Aiken’s predicament when sixth overall pick Barret Loux was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. Like Aiken, Loux had agreed to a handshake deal with the team that drafted him, only to have the team discover that something was wrong with his pitching arm in a post-draft physical. Loux’s case was more extreme than Aiken’s, however. It was found that he a torn labrum and elbow damaged, which made the Diamondback’s so concerned that they didn’t even offered Loux the minimum amount necessary to take advantage of the compensation rules that will allow the Astros to have the second pick next year should Loux choose (for no reason, considering his injury) not to sign. But because of this unusual situation, instead of making Loux reenter the draft in 2011, MLB elected to make him a free agent, and he ended up signing with the Texas Rangers for a little over $300,000.

So while the Loux and Aiken situations aren’t identical, one can see why Aiken and his agent would consider appealing for the same treatment. Should he hit the open market, it would be interesting to see not only how much money Aiken would sign for, but whether what team lands him would find the same issue as the Astros. Again, this is probably the least unlikely path that Brady Aiken will take, but it would be a surprise if he did not at least consider it as a possibility.

It’s hard to see this working out for both sides. The Astros might have just lost out on a future ace. Brady Aiken might have just lost the opportunity to sign for more money than he’ll be offered next time he negotiates a contact. Maybe he’ll follow Gerrit Cole and get more money as a college junior than he was offered as a first rounder out of high school, but that seems highly unlikely given the difference in the pair’s original draft slots (Cole was drafted 28th in 2008 before going 1st in 2011). Plus, if the Astros are right about Aiken having a real elbow problem, then he could get injured and never see a fraction of the money he was offered. Especially on Aiken’s end, there seems to be a lot of risk without much marginal reward. Maybe next year we’ll be talking about Aiken going number one for the second year in a row, with a clean physical from the team that drafts him, and signing for $7 million, but I doubt it.

Overall, the failure to sign Aiken is probably the most compelling draft story in a long time. It brings up questions not just about the Houston Astros and Brady Aiken, but about the draft as a whole. For example, this whole thing could have possibly been avoided if MLB had a pre-draft medical combine to combat surprise post-draft “injuries” like this one, but whether that is a reasonable expectation is a topic for another discussion. Today it’s about Brady Aiken, and where he, and the Houston Astros, go from here.

Taking a Look at the Cubs Future Talent

Coming into the season, the Chicago Cubs already had an embarrassing amount of positional talent, and even if they’d added no one else, they would probably be the easy choice for the best group of non-pitchers in any system. And yet, the rich have gotten richer, since the Cubs drafted C/1B/OF Kyle Schwarber fourth overall last month, and traded for SS Addison Russell on the 4th of July in the Jeff Samardzija deal. But to say that they have the best collection of talent is one thing, while actually showing what that talent can produce is another.

So with that in mind, I’m going to take a stab at putting together a compilation of Cubs’ top prospects future statistical lines using a couple different sources. First is the Baseball Prospectus Futures Guide, which is the only publication of its kind that publishes tool grades across the board (Baseball America only writes the Overall Future Profile for each player, with the exception of the top prospect in each system) using the 20 to 80 scouting scale (if you are unfamiliar with the scale read thesetwoarticles by Kevin Goldstein). Second is an article from FanGraphs (found here) which attempt to quantify players’ WAR using that same 20-80 scale.

Using those sources, I’ll take a look at what each of the Cubs’ top prospects stat lines would look like if each player actually reached the ceiling of each of their tools as judged by the Baseball Prospectus staff.

Here’s how the Cubs top seven guys stack up in terms of tools:

And here they are with their skills translated into marginal (from the MLB average of 2.0 for a starter) WAR:

In the graph above, each bar is the amount of WAR away from the league average of 2.0. Any tools not shown are 50 grades, and therefore have no difference from the league average.

Finally, here is the total WAR of each Cubs prospect:

A few caveats before I discuss each player individually:

  • Each tool is displayed as judged by Baseball Prospectus before the season began. There will definitely be tool grades that you disagree with. I disagree with them too; such is the benefit of hindsight. We’ll get to the issues I have in the player profiles. Be patient.
  • I will be using the second table underneath the translation of power into WAR in the FanGraphs post I am using as source material. I chose that table with the intention of keeping these numbers as realistic as possible.
  • The margins of WAR for each tool are generally pretty conservative. A player can still be extremely valuable while grading out as below average in one area. This includes the hit or power tool. Go check out Josh Donaldson’s 2014 stats if you don’t believe me.
  • I chose to use the BP glove tool over the arm tool when translating the two tools into WAR, since the general consensus is that the glove tool is more important in determining a player’s defensive value.
  • Additionally, defensive WAR does not slide based on the player’s position. Obviously a 50 glove shortstop is more valuable than the equivalent first baseman, but we have no way to adjust for that here.
  • Remember that 2 WAR is generally considered the benchmark for a league average regular. 4-5 WAR is all-star territory, and anyone above 6 WAR is probably going to be an MVP candidate.

Now let’s get to the players:

Javier Baez, 2B/3B/SS/OF

Tools: 65 hit, 80 power, 50 run, 60 glove, 70 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.5 hit + 2.0 power + 0 run + 1.1 defense = 4.6 total WAR

Despite experiencing the toughest 2014 season of any prospect on this list, Baez’s value of 4.6 WAR seems like a reasonable ceiling for him. If his prime years leave him somewhere between four and five WAR, he’ll be a perennial all-star candidate.

That said, Baez’s hit tool grade of 65 stands out as an overgrade at this point in time. He obviously has a great deal of developing still to, but guys with his approach generally don’t hit for a high average without a Vladimir Guerrero level of hand-eye coordination. Baez can still reach the 5 WAR level considering his power potential, but it’s really hard to see him ever being more than a 55 level hitter.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF

Tools: 55 hit, 75 power, 45 run, 50 glove, 65 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 1.7 power – 0.2 run + 0 defense = 2.0 total WAR

This is the stat line that stands out the most as being too low. Bryant has absolutely torn up AA and AAA this year to the tune of a .346/.444/.701 slash line. Like Baez, there’s a good amount of swing and miss in his game, but it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if that grade ended up being at least half a grade short at the big league level. Bryant may also have more power utility than a guy like Baez, considering his advanced approach, though neither player will lack for much in the department regardless.

He may end up in right field, but that shouldn’t alter his projection too drastically. Bryant has a plus arm, but he’ll be in the lineup to hit and hit for power. 2 WAR is probably the low end projection for last year’s no.2 overall pick.

Albert Almora, OF

Tools: 65 hit, 60 power, 50 run, 65 glove, 55 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.5 hit + 0.7 power + 0 run + 1.7 defense = 4.9 total WAR

While Bryant’s projection stands out as being too low, Almora looks the most overvalued in terms of WAR. Almora has suffered through a rough first half, although he has picked it up of late, including a cycle last night. But even considering the recent hot streak, the plus projections on both the hit and power seem especially optimistic. Then again, Almora is the youngest guy on this list, so he has more time than anyone to prove me wrong.

However, dismissing Almora as overrated is probably not fair to him, nor is it the right way to analyze an exercise like this. I’ll admit, and I’m not alone in this, that I tend to overvalue great hitting prospects in comparison to great defensive prospects. Part of that is rational: hitting is generally more valuable than defending. But another part of that is my brain saying ooh dingers. Almora may be a perfect example of the type of prospect that gets underrated while going through a rough stretch. A plus to plus-plus center fielder, like Almora, is extremely valuable, and unlike hitting, defense doesn’t slump.

Jorge Soler, OF

Tools: 55 hit, 70 power, 50 run, 50 glove, 70 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 1.4 power + 0 run + 0 defense = 1.9 total WAR

A borderline regular seems like a reasonable projection for a guy like Soler. At the plate, he has a very similar profile to Javy Baez: crazy raw power, but a questionable approach. But scarily enough, he’s actually probably less polished than Baez, and he is likely relegated to a corner while Baez has the potential to play a premium defensive position. But again, the defensive WAR in the table above does not adjust for position, so the difference isn’t reflected in Soler’s WAR calculation.

Additionally, Soler has missed the majority of the 2014 season with an injury, though he’s been tearing the cover off the ball since he got back. But combine the injury with the fact that he can’t play center and has faced character concerns in the past, and Soler may end up as the odd man out in a lineup that looks as crowded as the future Cubs’.

Arismendy Alcantara, 2B/OF

Tools: 55 hit, 55 power, 65 run, 60 glove, 60 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 0.4 power + 0.5 run + 1.1 defense = 2.5 total WAR

The lone big leaguer on this list, Alcantara was enjoying a breakout season with a .307/.353/.537 at AAA before being called up and getting four hits in his second game with the Cubs. An above average regular, which is what 2.5 WAR would make him, is exactly the kind of player the Cubs are expecting at this point. Alcantara can do a little bit of everything, and even if he’s never elite at any one thing, his well roundedness and versatility should be extremely valuable for Chicago. Since he’s already in the majors, he requires the least amount of projection. Things will only get easier for him as other guys from this list join him at the highest level.

Addison Russell, SS

Tools: 60 hit, 60 power, 50 run, 60 glove, 60 arm

Tool-based stat line(Marginal WAR):  1.0 hit + .7 power + 0 run + 1.1 defense = 2.8 total WAR

Regardless of what the Cubs choose to do with Starlin Castro, Russell is the guy that most likely will be filling the six hole for Chicago over the next decade. Russell is famous for perhaps the best pair of hands (both offensively and defensively) in the minor leagues, and that trait has elevated him to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Around 3 WAR seems like the floor for a guy as highly regarded as Russell, though the Cubs should be thrilled even if that’s all that he’s able to give them on a yearly basis. He’s not a freak show in the mold of Baez, but his floor is much higher, and none other than Billy Beane compared him to Barry Larkin after trading him away for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Kyle Schwarber, C/1B/OF

Tools: 60 hit, 65 power, 45 run, 40 glove, 45 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.0 hit + 1.1 power – 0.2 run – 0.1 defense = 1.8 total WAR

Like Bryant, Schwarber’s line is one that stands out as lower than I would have thought. While 1.8 WAR isn’t terrible, it’s certainly lower than the Cubs are expecting for the player who currently has more homeruns than the rest of the (brand new) 2014 draft class. With that said, this could again be some hitter bias creeping into my thinking. Despite being having plus hit and power tools, Schwarber may just be below average at everything else. The Cubs are currently splitting his time between catcher and left field, though most scouts believe that he’ll have to abandon the shin guards at some point. However, if Schwarber is able to stick behind the plate, this projection should shoot up if his bat meets projections. Regardless, I think Schwarber’s bat will play anywhere, and I’d expect more out of him than 1.8 WAR.

 

Future for Present: Samardzija to the A’s

In what is almost certain to be the biggest trade this season, and probably the biggest since the Red Sox – Dodgers trade in 2012, the Oakland Athletics went all-in on the 2014 season by trading top seven prospect Addison Russell, 2013 first-rounder Billy McKinney, RHP Dan Straily and a player to be named later to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Even though the A’s could have already been considered the favorites to win the title, this trade puts them firmly in the driver’s seat for October.

Despite ranking second behind the Nationals in team ERA, Oakland’s pitching staff was a middle of the pack 16th for xFIP, according to FanGraphs, meaning they were a pretty good candidate to regress over the second half of the season. Behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir (though his injury history isn’t exactly reassuring), guys like Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz don’t have a history of sustained performance. So by grabbing two pitchers from the rebuilding Cubs, the A’s shored up the one area of their team that could have proved vulnerable down the stretch.

People may be surprised that general manager Billy Beane would be willing to sell the farm for guys that probably won’t be around long-term, it will be difficult to criticize him if Oakland ends the season with a championship. Oakland’s offense is currently a borderline-historic juggernaut, outscoring opponents by 1.5 runs per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The second place Angels come into today with a +0.8 RPG differential. Over a full season that’s about an 11 win advantage over just the Angels, let alone the rest of the league.

It shouldn’t be undersold that it is the Angels, rather than another team, right behind the Athletics. Oakland’s division rival can make a case as the second best team in the American League, and it’s difficult to underestimate any team that has the world’s best player. By adding Samardzija and Hammel, Oakland not only becomes one of the deepest staffs in the league overnight, but it takes two prime trade candidates away from their competitors.

Despite being considered the best team in the league before this trade, the A’s are just 3.5 games ahead of the Angels. If Samardzija and Hammel can pitch at about a combined three or four win pace over the remainder of the season (a reasonable expectation), Oakland should be able to win the AL West pretty comfortably. But where this trade will make a big difference for Oakland is in the post-season. Do you think A’s fans might be a little more comfortable with Samardzija or Hammel starting a playoff game instead of the aforementioned Chavez, Milone or Pomeranz? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, while Oakland looks set up for a title run, Chicago looks like they may be the front runners for the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, not that they mind. By adding Russell, I think the Cubs have the most impressive group of position players at the minor league level that I’ve ever seen. Russell is a no-shit shortstop, and with him, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara, the Cubs could have an infield with three guys capable of playing the six-hole at the major league level, should the Cubs choose to use that alignment.

Russell ranked third, seventh, 11th, and 14th on the top prospect lists for ESPN, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America, respectively.  The highest praise for him is about his hands, both in the box and in the field. He’s projected as a possible 70 hitter with above average power and a plus glove. If he reaches that ceiling he’ll be the starting shortstop for the National League most July’s. It’s truly rare to see a prospect of his quality moved in a trade, and we haven’t seen one move since the Wil Myers – James Shields trade in 2012. But unlike that trade, it seems difficult to criticize either side in this deal.

While Russell is the real prize in the Cubs’ haul, McKinney and Straily are more than just throw-ins. McKinney was a first rounder last June, and while he’s struggled a bit while an aggressive promotion to High-A this season, he projects as an average regular down the line. The only problem is that average might not be good enough to get in the Cubs’ future lineups, but I’ll get to that in another post. Straily exploded onto the scene two years ago, when he struck out 222 hitters between AA, AAA, and the majors. But he’s struggled ever since, and has bounced between AAA and Oakland the past two seasons. He doesn’t have elite stuff, but Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has done a good job of helping pitchers improve, as seen through Hammel and Jake Arrieta. Straily will have plenty of opportunities to make adjustments without consequence at the big league level, and the Cubs will surely hope that he can get back to the performance level he showed two years ago.

Like just about any trade, it would be dumb to declare a winner before any player involved has played a game with their new club, but I will say that I love this trade for both sides, which I something I can’t really ever remember thinking. While this deal might have swung the title in favor of Oakland this season, it may end up contributing to the end of a certain drought on the south side of Chicago a few years from now. We’ll see.