The Astros selected high school pitcher Brady Aiken with the first overall pick in this year's amateur draft, and quickly came to a verbal agreement that would pay Aiken a $6.5 million bonus, a notch down from the $7.9 million slot value that was assigned the No. 1 pick. But now the Astros are trying to wriggle out of the deal after a physical revealed an alleged "abnormality" in Aiken's elbow—we'll here note that pretty much every pitcher has abnormalities in their arm if you want to go looking for them—and his agent, Casey Close, is pissed.
Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal got in touch with Close, who believes that the Astros are using this apparent physical issue as an excuse to game the entire draft system. The team is trying to pressure Aiken into accepting a deal for $3.1 million, and Close believes that they are using another one of his clients, fifth-round pick Jacob Nix, as leverage. The Astros had already agreed to a $1.5 million deal with Nix, but now they are threatening to rescind the deal if Aiken doesn't sign at a reduced rate.
The Astros are doing this because they are trying to dance around baseball's draft rules. Each team is assigned a "bonus pool" by the league before each draft, a total dollar amount that teams are allowed to spend on draft-pick bonuses. This year, the Astros' pool was $13,362,200, but if they fail to sign Aiken, his $7.9 million slot value gets lopped off the top of that. If the Astros were then to honor Nix's $1.5 million deal, they would end up spending more money than was in their pool, and would be penalized by losing at least one future draft pick. This is also why the Astros are offering Aiken exactly $3.1 million—as long as they offer Aiken least 40 percent of his slot value, they will get the second overall pick in the 2015 draft if he ends up not signing.
So there's the rub. The Astros are a smart organization trying to protect their assets, and they're also dicking with some kid's money. It's smart business maneuvering, and a shitty way to treat players—especially Aiken, who can't just refuse the Astros' shitty offer and become a free agent. All Aiken can do in this case is turn down the money and go to college, or sit out a year and re-enter the draft in 2015.
And how much money would Aiken, as a top-rated pitching prospect with a mysterious arm issue, fetch on the open market? Some smart baseball people are throwing around numbers like $10 million, which could actually be a huge underestimate. (When top draft pick Matt White become a free agent due to a paperwork botch, he got a $10.2 million signing bonus—and that was nearly 20 years ago.)
All of this is a reminder that while it doesn't get as much attention as, say, the NCAA's amateurism scam, the draft is still an atavism, a comprehensive engine for fucking young athletes. Remember that its rules are collectively bargained between MLB ownership and the players' union, which definitionally doesn't include the amateurs whose careers the draft governs. These are two parties with strong interests in artificially holding down the salaries these young players can make.
In fairness to the Astros, even the worst reading of this wouldn't make them anywhere near the sleaziest team in the league. (Things like the Philadelphia Phillies actually ratting out players to the NCAA set the bar here.) Still, when there comes a day when most of the dynamic young pitchers in the league don't have some kind of arm issue, maybe this kind of lowballing tactic will be OK. Until then, the Astros should just pay Aiken what he's worth.