By now you probably know that Brady Aiken, whom the Indians took with the 17th pick Monday night, was the #1 overall pick a year ago, but never signed a deal with the Houston Astros, after they downsized their offer due to concerns that came up about his elbow following medical tests.
Aiken drew comparisons to Clayton Kershaw and Andy Pettitte leading up to last year's draft. He was viewed as one of the very best high school arms of the last decade. He was incredibly devoted to baseball, had excellent mechanics, and unlike a lot of prep pitchers, his workload had been managed by his coaches. He did not seem like a higher than normal injury risk. On top of that, and his tremendous stuff, one Houston scout said of his makeup, "I feel like it's Peyton Manning on a surfboard." I'll be honest, I don't even know what that means, but it's too good a quote not to include.
Two days after he was drafted, Aiken and the Astros agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, pending only a physical. That physical reportedly revealed a smaller than normal UCL, which is the ligament that has to be repaired by Tommy John surgery*. The Astros then cut their offer all the way down to $3.1 million, which was the minimum they could offer and still receive a replacement pick in this year's draft (if Aiken declined). Many believed they wanted him to decline, preferring to get the #2 pick in this year's draft (which they did), rather than running the risk of paying millions to a pitcher they were no longer confident in. On the day of the signing deadline, the team apparently upped its offer to $5 million, but no deal was reached.
*In March, Aiken underwent Tommy John surgery.
To get a little more information on what happened last year, I checked in with Ryan Dunsmore, managing editor at Crawfish Boxes, our Houston Astros cousin.
Jason: Any thoughts on how sign-able Aiken will be? At first glance, seems like a no-brainer that he'd sign for slot or below, because he's going to be on the shelf for months, but maybe he believes he can get back into the top five next year and make triple the slot value of this #17 pick.
Ryan: Honestly at this point, I'm not sure. Maybe his mindset has changed after his recent surgery. Remember the Astros did give a final $5 million offer before the deadline to sign, a dollar amount he was never going to get unless he went around the top five, but pride seemed to get in the way of making a deal. For all the things the Astros did, the Aiken family seems to be cut from a different cloth. I suspect they will be expecting full slot or close to it even with his recent health history.
Jason: How much blame do you put on him, and how much on the Astros, for what happened last year? Do you think the Astros intentionally low-balled him once the issue as discovered, because they preferred the #2 pick this year?
Ryan: I don't think percentages matter, both sides appears to have played a clear part. Aiken didn't have an injury but a higher likelihood of an injury. Should the Astros have honored the original contract offer? Did they trust their doctors too much? Were they too impersonal in their transaction with Aiken, his family, and his agent? Did they reduce the offer too much? There is a lot of smoke around the Astros that says something rubbed the Aiken family the wrong way*.
Now on the other hand, the Aiken family seem to think more with their heart and pride then their head. The Aikens wouldn't even answer calls from the Astros at the deadline. Even with the injury risk, Houston wanted his talent in camp. Leaving a $5 million offer on the table must have been tough to do. If someone told you, "You're not hurt, but you're going to get hurt. So we're giving you less money," how would you react? I can see where they are coming from.
In the end, the Aiken and his family stuck to their guns, choosing to go back to the draft and he ended up having Tommy John surgery. This doesn't mean the Astros were right, because the issue still could have been how the Astros handled things and less about the medical issues. But this exact injury is why Houston reduced its offer.
Jason: If Aiken hadn't told the Astros not to, do you think they would have given serious consideration to drafting him again this year?
Ryan: I think don't think the Astros would have taken Aiken 1-1 in 2014 if they had seen his physical before the draft. Outside of getting a major slot steal, I didn't see them drafting him again. This all said, I speak for everyone over at TCB in wishing Aiken the best of luck his career. No one wants to see young talent derailed by injury, and we wish him a speedy recovery.
The day after he had his Tommy John surgery, Aiken published an article at The Players' Tribune. Among the things he wrote, this line jumped out at me:
The money wasn't the only factor to consider. I wanted to play somewhere I felt comfortable, with a support system I felt would lay the groundwork for a successful and long career. Making sure I had that in place was worth the frustration of not being able to get on with my career sooner.
It sounds to me like, as Ryan mentioned above, something about the Astros rubbed Aiken the wrong way. Perhaps it was just wounded pride at having had his offer cut to 40% of what it had been, or maybe Houston really did handle things poorly, not for cutting the offer, but for how they cut it, or how they presented things. In any event, I think that so long as the Indians offer something near slot, Aiken is going to sign. Then we just have to hope he gets back to 100% and lives up to the talent that made him the top player in the draft a year ago.