The Houston Astros are in full rebuild mode, from a major league payroll of about $45 million (29th in the majors, but up from $26 million last year) to tanking the previous two seasons to having the No. 1 overall pick in three straight drafts for the first time in draft history.
But the rebuilding process hit a major roadblock Friday, when the Astros failed to sign this year’s No. 1 overall pick, San Diego high school lefthander Brady Aiken.
It's just the third time in draft history (which began in 1965) that the No. 1 overall pick has not signed. Previous unsigned picks Danny Goodwin (1971) and Tim Belcher (1983) both went on to become first-round picks again and eventually major leaguers.
A lefthander out of San Diego's Cathedral Catholic High, Aiken and the Astros had agreed to the parameters of a $6.5 million signing bonus in June, and Aiken traveled to Houston. But his actual signing never materialized amid media reports that the Astros found an issue with his elbow during a physical examination.
Meanwhile, the Astros' inability to sign Aiken jeopardized their reported signing of fifth-rounder Jacob Nix, a righthander from Los Alamitos (Calif.) High, whom MLB.com had reported as having agreed to a $1.5 million bonus. Not signing Aiken would cost Houston the entirety of the $7.9 million allotted for the No. 1 overall pick from their overall signing budget, and the team would not be able to afford Nix at more than $1.1 million over his allotment without signing Aiken for a below-slot deal.
The signing never became official, and Friday’s 5 p.m. signing deadline came and went, with no word from the Astros, Major League Baseball or Aiken's adviser, Casey Close of Excel Sports Management. Around 5:15 p.m., Baseball America learned from multiple sources that the Astros had failed to sign both Aiken and Nix, as well as 21st-rounder Mac Marshall, a prep lefty from Georgia. The Astros will receive a compensatory pick in the 2015 draft, second overall, for failing to sign Aiken.
The Astros had re-engaged negotiations with Marshall at about the same time that Aiken's deal was reported to be in jeopardy, sources said. Marshall already had reported to Baton Rouge, La., and was attending summer school classes at Louisiana State when Houston reportedly offered him $1.5 million to sign—the difference between their original reported deal with Aiken and the $5 million baseball sources have indicated was their latest offer to Aiken.
The Astros issued an official statement that read in part, “We are disappointed that we were not able to reach an agreement with Brady Aiken today. As an organization, we devoted a great deal of time and resources to these negotiations. Despite our best efforts, a deal could not be reached.”
Initial efforts to reach Astros general manager were unsuccessful. He told the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich, "We tried to engage Casey Close three times (July 18) . . . there was no interest."
Luhnow also told Drellich, "We did nothing unethical, we did nothing disingenuous. We tried to sign good players at the appropriate values."
Luhnow did nothing to improve his organization, however. The Astros drafted and signed shortstop Carlos Correa first overall in 2012, and drafted and signed righthander Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick in 2013. Correa has developed into one of the game's top prospects (though he has a broken leg and will be out the remainder of the season), but Appel has failed to impress as a pro with a succession of setbacks and a 1-5, 10.80 mark through 11 starts at high Class A Lancaster this season.
Now the Astros will come out of the 2014 draft with three college power hitters in outfielder Derek Fisher, first baseman (and Golden Spikes Award winner) A.J. Reed and third baseman J.D. Davis their top signed draft picks.
The Players Association issued a statement critical of the Astros, 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."
The union’s executive director, Tony Clark, had been critical of the Astros in comments to FoxSports.com for jeopardizing Nix’s agreement once their initial deal with Aiken didn’t materialize.
Both Akins and Nix had commitments to UCLA, but it’s unclear at this time if they will honor those commitments or even be eligible to play for the Bruins. Other options could include playing in junior college next season, which would make them eligible for the 2015 draft.
In other draft news Friday, the Nationals went 1-for-3, signing first-rounder Erick Fedde but failing to land lefthander Andrew Suarez, their second-round pick. Fedde, a righthander out of Nevada-Las Vegas, had Tommy John surgery June 2, two days before the Nationals drafted him 18th overall. Fedde signed for $2,511,100, well above the slot for his pick of $2,145,600. Suarez, however, didn't sign and will return to Miami as a redshirt junior. The Nationals also failed to sign ninth-rounder Austin Byler, a power-hitting first baseman out of Nevada.
The other unsigned first-rounder, lefthander Sean Newcomb, agreed to a contract with the Angels for a bonus of $2,518,400. That's higher than the assigned pick value of $2,475,600.