Deadline day did not work out for the Houston Astros, who failed to sign the No. 1 overall pick in the draft -- left-handed pitcher Brady Aiken -- who by all accounts is a fine young man as well as an extremely talented pitching prospect. They also failed to sign two more prized picks in right-hander Jacob Nix and left-hander Mac Marshall.
And it wasn't a good day for Aiken, either, who was said by all involved to be excited to begin his professional career upon originally agreeing to a $6.5-million deal. Now he will instead have to take the tougher road to riches through the college ranks, presuming the NCAA allows him to keep his UCLA scholarship even if he had a deal and was in Houston for a press conference that never came off.
Nor was it an especially good day for Nix, who thought he had a $1.5 million deal with the Astros, and passed his medical test with Astros doctors with flying colors only to have it pulled out from under him because someone else's physical (namely his friend Aiken) wasn't deemed to be perfect.
Not that the Astros didn't try to recover Friday, trying last-ditch efforts to save the day. While Aiken's adviser Casey Close had previously revealed that the team knocked its offer down to $3.1 million after finding an alleged flaw in the physical, the Astros made three separate offers Friday, with the second one coming with 30 minutes to go and the third one, said to be for $5 million, with five minutes left.
Aiken's side (with adviser Close also happening to be the adviser for Nix, which unavoidably adds some stickiness to the situation), is said to have responded with nothing beyond a “no” to all three offers Friday. There was not one counteroffer, according to people familiar with the talks. Not even for the original $6.5 million, they say.
Close just said nothing, at least as far as the negotiations were concerned. On other scores, however, he apparently had plenty to say, giving Astros GM Jeff Luhnow an earful over the phone about the unfortunate situation.
People who heard about Close's conversations with Luhnow said Close berated Luhnow for various perceived transgressions, accusing him of leaking the medical findings regarding Aiken that derailed the deal (he is said to have an issue with his left ulnar collateral ligament) and suggesting to him that players don't or won't want to deal with them because of the way they handle things.
Luhnow declined to confirm the content of their “conversations,” and Close didn't respond to texts.
Tonight, the players union left little doubt where it placed the blame. Union chief Tony Clark issued a statement saying, “Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers. Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options.”
Clark said at the All-Star gathering they believed the Astros “manipulated” the system, harsh words that may be the start of the new union's chief's first real fight. He wasn't in charge when these draft rules were installed, but he seems pretty sure this wasn't what the union had in mind. Clark, it seems, may be looking to fight here. Union people declined further comment, citing legal reasons. And that may be a sign they are aiming to press legal buttons. Perhaps they shoot for free agency for both players via grievance.
A case certainly could be made that the Aiken situation should have been handled more diplomatically, with the team coming with the $5 million offer (which is still more than the $4.8-million offer they made No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa two years ago) soon after the medical findings, rather that dropping his offer to $3.1 million, which is the bare minimum they could offer to prevent Aiken from becoming a free agent. But ultimately, it may be difficult to say one way or another whether Aiken's allegedly small ligament adversely affects his chances of becoming a star, or should cause his bonus to be lowered.
Player bonuses have been dropped before due to medical findings, such as R.A. Dickey, whose agreed-upon $810,000 Rangers bonus was cut to a mere $75K after a team exam revealed he had no ulnar collateral ligament whatsoever. (He took it.)
The most obvious victim here though would appear to be Nix, who is said to have had no medical issues and yet winds up unsigned over the difference of opinion the Astros and Aiken had over Aiken's medical exam (Aiken's side said he is fine, pointing out he threw 97 mph in his final high school game and saw three leading doctors after the Astros' who attest to that).
A reasonable case could be made that the Astros are obligated to sign Nix since the presumption when he came for his own physical was that if he passed it they had a deal. Houston has been accused by Clark of manipulation, but perhaps they simnply didn't maneuver properly. The under-slot signings should be done first, a rival GM pointed out. But this may also be up to their adviser to navigate; maybe Nix simply shouldn't have been advised to go for a physical before Aiken's deal was official.
Luhnow declined comment on the Nix situation. But other people familiar with the Astros' thinking on this suggest that Nix's side should have understood that he wasn't going to get $1.5 million, or $1.2 million above slot for a fifth-round pick, without the pool money that was to come from the consummation of an Aiken deal. Maybe so, but it's also hard to recall a player losing his deal because of another player's physical, which is what happened here. And Nix himself certainly wouldn't have any reason to think he'd become the first.
Close can berate Luhnow if he likes, but a case could be made that the adviser might have been better off getting their own doctor to examine Aiken first, or perhaps even getting the Astros to sign off on a doctor of their choosing. If Close finds the Astros so sketchy, as he seems to from his “conversation” with Luhnow, the question may be asked whether he should have trusted the exam to the team, where anything could happen to lower the pre-arranged $6.5 million deal. Close is an experienced and respected negotiator with several $100 million deals on his resume, but if he really doesn't trust the Astros, why did he trust them in this case?
The union seems to believe there is a case, and for Nix, a hard-throwing righty who like Aiken is from southern California, in particular there may be one. It's hard to see him as anything but an innocent bystander, and a fair recourse might be to make him a free agent. The promising lefty Marshall, too, became a victim of Houston's inability to sign Aiken, though there hasn't been public word that he had an agreement that was killed by the failure of the Aiken negotiations.
Of course the union might have been better served not to accede to this draft playing field in the first place, where bonuses have severe limits and one player's status can be affected by another one's physical condition.
As things stand, they are pretty sticky. Nix still would have had his deal had Aiken taken the $5 million that was offered, meaning the decision of one of Close's clients affected another's. Perhaps Aiken was too annoyed with the Astros to accept any deal (after all, Close didn't even counter at all, even by repeating the $6.5 million original offer, sources say), but nonetheless, his decision inadvertently affected Nix.
Aiken and Nix presumably can commiserate at UCLA and reapply for the draft in three years (a club person said their eligibility shouldn't be affected since players are allowed 48-hour tryouts at team sites) or they can go the junior college route and try for next year. Either way, even if Aiken's arm is completely sound, there's no guarantee he'd still get the $5 million he was offered.
The Astros, who brilliantly maneuvered the new draft two years ago, are an obvious loser here. They effectively used the draft in the past, adding above-slot talents like Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz after saving a few bucks on Correa two years ago. But the plan blew up on them Friday.
"It's disappointing to the fans, and I get that," Luhnow said. "We went into the draft trying to extract as much talent as possible. ... We did what we thought was best for the Astros. This was not our goal. Our goal was to sign the player."
The Astros will at least receive a replacement pick, the No. 2 overall pick, next year, presumably giving them two very high picks. But Luhnow understands the "delay" is not a positive. It certainly isn't for a team that has had the worst record in baseball three years running, and whose fans deserve a medal for patience as they await the fruits of the grand plan.
As for their reputations, the Astros will likely remain a love-'em-or-hate-'em type organization, with the sabermetric set viewing them positively for calculating so precisely, with the old-school set deriding them for not taking the human element into account, beyond what's read on a stat sheet or an MRI. Texts were flying Friday about the "Last-ros" and the "Dis-Astros," feeding into Close's feelings. But Close’s harsh words on the phone may just be the start of something much bigger planned.