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.