In the story of the Houston Astros' failure to sign two of their top draft picks on Friday, there are neither villains nor victors, only victims left holding empty bags. The first overall pick in the draft, Brady Aiken, declined to sign with the Astros, marking just the third time in the June draft's history that the top player did not sign and the first since 1984.
The greatest victim of all in this fiasco is Jacob Nix, the Astros' fifth-round pick, a high school pitcher from Southern California who agreed to a $1.5 million bonus and passed his physical but was not allowed to sign his contract because of a medical issue involving Aiken. While, practically speaking, everyone involved knew that Nix's deal was contingent on Aiken's, that's not permissible under MLB rules and couldn't be made explicit or put in writing, which will likely be the basis of any grievance filed by Nix against the Astros -- or potential litigation seeking to enforce the verbal contract between the parties.
Aiken himself was also a victim, as much of ill fortune as anything else. Aiken had agreed to a $6.5 million bonus from the Astros, but his physical revealed an irregularity in his elbow that spooked the team and caused a rift between the two sides that no one was able to bridge. Aiken isn't hurt; he is ready and cleared to pitch right away and was up to 97 mph in his last outing of the spring. He doesn't have a torn ligament or require Tommy John surgery. The ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow is, apparently, less than normal -- thinner or shorter, not absent like R.A. Dickey's but not full strength like those of most pitchers. The compressive force between a pitcher's forearm (ulna) and upper-arm bones is at its maximum when his arm is fully cocked, and without the UCL there to prevent further rotation in the elbow, the force on those bones would become excessive. That might be a long-term concern, but we have no examples of pitchers who've had this issue, and Aiken's response to any such questions would have been to point out that he's healthy and throwing 97 miles per hour. When one side says the pitcher is broken and the other says he's not, there's no middle ground, and the current draft system is ill equipped to handle a situation like this, regardless of where the player was drafted.
While the Astros could likely have handled several phases of this process differently, they became victims of the current draft setup (and its unintended consequences, a recurring feature -- not a bug -- in MLB's collective bargaining agreement negotiations) the moment they found something irregular in Aiken's medical. They decided the issue was serious enough that they didn't feel immediately comfortable offering him more than the 40 percent mandated by the CBA to ensure they'd receive a compensatory pick in 2015 if Aiken didn't sign. That discovery, however, changed the calculus on the deal they had in place with Nix: If Aiken didn't agree to sign for a reduced figure, they couldn't sign Nix without surrendering their top two draft picks in 2015 as a penalty for exceeding their bonus pool figure for this year. No player in this entire draft class was worth surrendering a first-round pick and a second-round pick next year. At that point, the Astros were boxed in by rules they likely never imagined would affect them in this draft.
All three parties are now supplicants at the feet of Major League Baseball, the only authority with the power to offer immediate remediation. Aiken and Nix are both likely to file grievances, Aiken claiming the team didn't negotiate in good faith -- although the Astros have said publicly they increased their offer to more than $5 million, which I assume is more than they wanted to pay given what they believe is amiss with his elbow -- and Nix claiming the team breached a verbal contract. I believe the Astros would have upheld their deal with Nix if the penalty wasn't two picks, but the current system doesn't permit them to go over their bonus pool even though their failure to sign their top pick was medically motivated, not financially. MLB could choose to step in here, on one or both cases, permitting the Astros to sign Nix without penalty (if he'll still have them, so to speak), or granting Aiken some form of free agency, as they did with Barrett Loux in a similar situation in 2010. The league's incentive to do so would be to avoid a grievance or, worse, a lawsuit that would make Jarndyce v. Jarndyce look like the "People's Court," inviting unwanted inquiry into the labor restraints placed on players by the draft.
Aiken and Nix are both left with uncertain academic futures, as the NCAA has likely been slavering over reports that cited an agent working with both players and could choose to investigate whether the players are violating the body's (likely unconstitutional, certainly unethical) proscription on players using the services of agents. Whether or not the Astros intended to out the players in this fashion, it's now on record that the team contacted a specific agent during this process. Either player could, and perhaps should, investigate attending junior college for one year and entering the 2015 draft, a step that would also avoid an investigation and possible suspensions if they matriculate at UCLA and Senator Draco of Indianapolis decides to drop the hammer on them.
The hope within the industry is that this debacle renews the push for some sort of pre-draft medical "combine" or any analogous process that puts critical medical information in teams' hands so they don't draft a player with an irregularity in his elbow if they don't want to. Such an endeavor would require pushing the draft back into the beginning of July -- I know one scouting director has suggested doing it at the All-Star break -- so that all amateur players would be done playing their spring schedules and the league would have time to get the results of any blood work done on players. The ripple effect would change the schedules of short-season leagues, summer collegiate leagues, the USA national team and many high school events, but the benefit to getting teams (and advisers) this information before the draft would seem to dwarf the costs in structural changes. No one wants the Brady Aiken situation to repeat itself. With a pre-draft combine, if the Astros didn't like something about Aiken's elbow, they would have passed, and the Miami Marlins, Chicago White Sox or Chicago Cubs would have happily taken him, and we wouldn't be having this conversation today.