Two days after the Astros selected him with the No. 1 overall pick, Brady Aiken agreed to terms on a $6.5 million bonus that would have matched the Draft record for a high school pitcher. But what was supposed to be a routine physical led to questions about Aiken's elbow, and the signing deadline passed Friday at 4 p.m. CT without him signing a contract.
A left-hander from Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego, Aiken became just the third No. 1 overall pick in Draft history not to come to terms, following Danny Goodwin (White Sox) in 1971 and Tim Belcher (Twins) in 1983. Baseball sources said that the Astros made three offers to Aiken on Friday, the last of which was for slightly more than $5 million.
"We did reach out multiple times today," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "For whatever reason, the other side wasn't responding. It was very fruitless negotiating against ourselves. We tried. We gave it our best shot to get a deal done with Brady, but it wasn't to be.
"It's disappointing. Our fans are disappointed, obviously. The second pick next year doesn't feel as good as signing Brady Aiken would have been today. Still, it's not a fatal blow to our plan. It's a setback, no question, but we're going to continue to invest in our pipeline and our strategy won't change."
Luhnow said the Astros also tried make contact with Aiken and his family earlier in the week but were unsuccessful.
Jim Aiken, Brady's father, and Casey Close of Excel Sports Management, who's advising Aiken, both declined comment via text messages. Earlier in the week, Close accused Houston of trying to manipulate its Draft pool to reduce Aiken's bonus and create extra money to sign 21st-rounder Mac Marshall, a Parkview (Ga.) High left-hander and Louisiana State recruit rated as a top-three-rounds talent.
The third high school lefty ever taken with the Draft's top pick, Aiken agreed to terms on a $6.5 million bonus on June 7, matching Jameson Taillon's (Pirates, 2010) standard for prep pitchers. He flew to Houston on June 23 for a physical that was supposed to cement the deal, but the results left the club concerned about the size of the ulnar collateral ligament in Aiken's left elbow.
The Astros subsequently reduced their offer to $3,168,840, which equals the minimum 40 percent of his assigned pick value ($7,922,100) required to receive the No. 2 overall choice in 2015 as compensation for Aiken not signing.
Fifth-rounder Jacob Nix, who like Aiken was advised by Close of Excel Sports Management, got caught in the fallout of Aiken's physical. A right-hander from Los Alamitos (Calif.) High, Nix agreed to a $1.5 million bonus within two weeks of the Draft. But his deal was put on hold and ultimately rescinded because if Houston had paid him $1.5 million without signing Aiken, it would have exceeded its bonus pool by more than 15 percent -- and lost its next two first-round picks as a penalty under the Draft rules.
"Certainly in the Draft -- and I haven't looked at the numbers in a while -- but there's a long way before these guys become Major League players," Astros owner Jim Crane said. "They did sign a very high percentage of the guys we drafted. You'd like to get all of them. We're certainly disappointed we didn't get these two, but we'll move on and keep working and deploy the money in other areas, international or free agents. We'll continue to get better. We're all disappointed we couldn't get him signed."
While Jim Aiken and Close were silent Friday, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark was not. The No. 2 overall pick in the 1990 Draft, Clark issued a statement after the deadline passed.
"Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers," the statement read. "Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options."
Luhnow denied that the Astros violated any rules or tried to take advantage of Aiken in order to sign Marshall.
"We were following the rules all along," Luhnow said. "We advised Major League Baseball of what we were doing every step of the way. We didn't do anything unethical. We didn't try to game the system. We tried to do what was best for the Houston Astros in accordance with the current [Collective Bargaining Agreement] and the Draft system. It's frustrating listening to people who are saying we tried to pull a fast one."
Both Aiken and Nix are committed to UCLA. If they join the Bruins, they wouldn't be Draft-eligible again until 2017.
However, Aiken and Nix could enter the 2015 Draft if they were to attend junior college or play in an independent professional league. Clark's reference to "legal options" suggests that they could have the MLBPA pursue a grievance or they could file a lawsuit.
A parallel to Aiken's situation happened last year, when St. Ignatius High (San Francisco) lefty Matt Krook agreed to terms with the Marlins as a supplemental first-round selection (35th overall) but failed his physical. Miami offered him 40 percent of his assigned value and received the 36th pick in the 2014 Draft. Krook decided to follow through on his commitment to attend Oregon, where he had Tommy John surgery this spring.
Multiple baseball officials believe that the circumstances surrounding Aiken (and Krook) will lead to eventual changes in the way Draft physicals are conducted. The current CBA, which came into play in December 2011, overhauled the Draft rules and called for a pre-Draft medical combine, though MLB and the MLBPA have been unable to work out the logistics.
When the Draft is held in early June, many college and high school players are still in the midst of their seasons. So almost all physicals take place after the Draft, with the determination of whether the player passes or fails solely at the discretion of the team's doctor. If he fails, like Aiken and Krook, the 40-percent rule gives the club almost all of the leverage and makes further negotiations difficult.
"This is a good opportunity to have a conversation about the process, see if we can take the lessons learned this year and make it better for everybody," Luhnow said. "We have an opportunity, together with the union, to prevent something like this from happening again."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com.