Astros, Number One Pick at Odds Over Bonus, Alleged Injury

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George Springer got the cover of last month's Sports Illustrated story on the Houston Astros. But the actual story was less about Springer than it was about how lessons learned by a blackjack dealer can be applied to building a baseball team. And a large portion of the story was set in the Astros draft room as the team prepared for last month's amateur player draft, and the discussions that led to the team drafting left-handed high school pitcher Brady Aiken with the number one pick.

Aiken has yet to sign a contract with the Astros. He and his family flew to Houston on June 23, supposedly to sign his contract. The Astros were supposedly prepared to announce his signing and introduce him to the fans inside Minute Maid Park before a game. The team store was supposedly prepared to start selling shirts with Aiken's name. But none of this has happened. The deadline for signing amateur players to a contract is this Friday.

Nobody outside of the Aikens and the Astros really knows why the contract is yet to be signed. There are reports that the Astros discovered an issue with the elbow ligament on Aiken's pitching arm. But no one knows if there is truth to these reports, or not -- the only person to go on the record as to Aiken's health is Paul Flores, a crossfit trainer who has been working as Aiken's personal trainer, who states that Aiken's healthy and continuing with his throwing and bullpen drills.

Along with the injury rumors have come stories concerning money. Or rather, the money the Astros want to pay Aiken. MLB's slotted bonus amount for the first pick of the draft was $7.9 million. It was reported, when Aiken flew to Houston to supposedly sign his contract, that he would be signing for a $6.5 million bonus. And it's now being reported that after the Astros discovered the so-called injury after Aiken arrived in Houston, that the team instead changed the bonus offer to $5 million.

There's a story this weekend out of San Diego questioning the Astros' motives and the extent, if any, of the so-called injury. This all part of the Astros strategy, according to the report. And it's based upon a tactic the Astros have used in the past. It's not so much about whether Aiken is injured, it's more about the amount of money saved on Aiken's bonus being just the right amount to sign two other unsigned draft picks. If the Astros are stuck having to pay the originally agreed upon $6.5 million figure, then the team will go over slot and be penalized with the loss of a future draft pick.

This is essentially, what the Astros did in 2012, minus the injury aspect. They drafted Carlos Correa and signed him well below slot, then used the saved money for Lance McCullers, Jr. There's nothing wrong with this. It makes for smart allocation of resources and allows the Astros to take chances on players in lower rounds that some teams pass on because of perceived money issues. But the problem with Aiken as opposed to Correa is that Correa wasn't supposedly injured, and Correa had agreed in advance to the lower bonus amount.

The report from San Diego states that the Astros contacted Aiken minutes before the draft and attempted to lowball him with the $5 million figure, then came up on that number when Aiken didn't agree. But even then, according to the story, Aiken didn't know if the Astros would select him, and told the MLB Network that he only knew for sure when Bud Selig announced his name on television.

It would follow then that Aiken believed he was going to sign for $6.5 million and came to Houston prepared to do so, only to have a the team supposedly discover a previously unknown injury and use that to lower the bonus amount back to the number Aiken rejected just before being drafted.

Maybe Aiken is injured -- though the San Diego story cites a study from Dr. James Andrews (primary doctor of injured pitchers) disputing the accuracy of MRIs in determining injuries to pitchers. But the Astros do have a history of lowballing on contract offers, and of attempting to strong-arm players into the lowball offers -- there's Correa in 2012 and the recent unpleasantness with George Springer and Jon Singleton's very team friendly contract.

Aiken does have some leverage on his side. If he doesn't sign, he can go to junior college or college (he has a scholarship with UCLA). If he goes to junior college, he can be drafted next year and if he goes to college, he'll be eligible after his junior year. If the Astros don't sign Aiken, they do get a compensatory second round pick next year, but the team won't have the necessary bonus money to sign the two other players without being penalized.

There should be an answer to whether Aiken signs by Friday. But there may never be an answer to just whether Aiken was ever really injured, and if so, just how severely he was injured. But hey, at least the Astros got a nice SI cover story out of everything.

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