Three days before the deadline for major league teams to sign their 2014 draft picks, the Astros are at loggerheads with No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken over his medical status.
In an interview with FoxSports.com's Ken Rosenthal on Tuesday, Aiken's adviser implied that the Astros are trumping up concerns about his elbow in order to pressure him into accepting a lower bonus, which would allow them to sign high-profile prep pitchers Jacob Nix (their fifth-round pick) and Mac Marshall (their 21st-round pick).
"We are extremely disappointed that Major League Baseball is allowing the Astros to conduct business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the draft and the 29 other clubs who have followed those same rules," Casey Close of Excel Sports Management told Rosenthal.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and an MLB spokesman both told Rosenthal that the club is adhering to major league rules. Rosenthal reports that Aiken's physical revealed a "significant abnormality" in the area of his elbow ligament; the point of contention is whether the abnormality is a legitimate cause for concern. Aiken touched 97 mph in his final start before the draft, and Close called the elbow issue "asymptomatic."
"Brady has been seen by some of the most experienced and respected orthopedic arm specialists in the country, and all of those doctors have acknowledged that he's not injured and that he's ready to start his professional career," Close told Rosenthal.
The Astros made Aiken the No. 1 overall pick in June after weighing their decision until the last minute. But the team and Aiken quickly appeared to come to an agreement on a $6.5 million deal, which is about $1.4 million less than the $7.9 million allotted for the No. 1 overall pick. The agreement was first reported by MLB.com and had been confirmed by several other media outlets, including Baseball America.
Houston planned to use the savings to sign fifth-rounder Nix, another Southern California high schooler, for $1.5 million. Sources told Baseball America that the Astros also contacted Marshall, a prep lefthander with a strong commitment to Louisiana State, on draft day and offered him more than $1 million with one of their picks in the first 10 rounds, but Marshall turned them down, seeking a $1.5 million bonus. The Astros took a flier on him later (when there would be no budget ramification for failing to sign him), and Marshall headed to Baton Rouge to take summer classes.
After Aiken's physical, CBSSports.com's John Heyman reported that the Astros reduced their offer to Aiken to $5 million. Sources tell BA that the Astros contacted Marshall last week and asked him to drive from Baton Rouge to Houston to take a physical—the same day Heyman first reported Houston's concerns about Aiken's elbow. But the word is Marshall's price tag has increased since draft day, and $1.5 million might not be enough to sign him.
Of course, if Aiken doesn't sign at all, draft rules dictate that the Astros will lose the $7.9 million slotted for the No. 1 pick from their budget, making it unlikely they could sign Nix or Marshall without going far over their signing budget—which could mean the loss of a first-round pick. For that reason, Nix has been stuck in limbo while waiting for Aiken's deal to be finalized, even though he had already passed his physical. That raised the ire of union boss Tony Clark.
"We believe that it is a clear violation of the rules being attempted solely to avoid penalty," Clark told Rosenthal. "The Astros made a deal with Jacob Nix and should honor that agreement."
Close told Rosenthal that Houston has made one revised offer to Aiken of $3,168,840, the minimum amount required to ensure they would receive the second overall pick in 2015 as compensation if they fail to sign Aiken. It is unclear if the Astros ever offered $5 million, as Heyman reported last week.
This saga has already gotten messy, and the Astros have generated ill will no matter how it plays out. Aiken and Nix are both advised by Close, and both are committed to UCLA. They could conceivably both decide to spurn the Astros and head to Westwood, where they could try to follow in the footsteps of Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, who left UCLA as two of the top three picks in the 2011 draft. Or they could opt to attend junior college for a year and re-enter the draft in 2015.
If the Astros are genuinely concerned about Aiken's elbow and not merely posturing to drive down his price tag as Close alleged, they might be willing to walk away without any of the three players this year and settle for the No. 2 overall pick next year as compensation. Given Close's strong public disagreement with Houston's interpretation of Aiken's medical reports, it seems unlikely that Aiken will accept less than half of what the Astros had already agreed to pay him.
The next three days should be fascinating.
Contributing: John Manuel.