While there are factions using the news of the apparent injury to unsigned former Houston Astros first round, first overall draft pick Brady Aiken to validate general manager Jeff Luhnow’s plan, the truth is that this neither reflects on Aiken, nor does it justify the Astros’ brutal attempt to reduce the bonus Aiken was offered after an issue was seen on Aiken’s elbow in his post-draft medical examination.
This story is being used to its maximum benefit by those who are invested in the success of the Astros’ blueprint of ruthless adherence to running the club as a business, setting lines on how much they spend, and defying conventional wisdom to the degree of risking a top prospect being lost with their attempts to allocate money wisely.
Of course, each side will have its own version of events and try to spin it to its best advantage. The problem the Astros face in running the club as a business is that a conventional business isn’t under the public scrutiny that a sports organization is with real time criticism and a lack of accountability for those making their critiques. No one’s going to apologize either way. They’ll gloat or stay silent, but the arrogance and egomania that comes with being a self-proclaimed “expert” hinders any real analysis as to the turn of events.
In a broader context, when it comes to immediate reaction, long-term assessment, hindsight and a grudging acknowledgement of having been right, this situation is similar to what happened with the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens and Dan Duquette after the 1996 season.
Duquette stayed silent after setting an amount he was willing to pay to keep Clemens with the Red Sox as he entered free agency season and let the pitcher depart to the Toronto Blue Jays. Clemens won two Cy Young Awards in Toronto, was traded to the New York Yankees and signed as a free agent with the Astros, winning two more. He was a prime example of the value of hard work and determination.
All the while Duquette kept quiet, endured the glares from Clemens and the overt hatred of his club’s media contingent and fan base not just for allowing Clemens to leave and denigrating him by saying he was in the “twilight” of his career, but watching as Clemens went to the hated Yankees, won the World Series that – to that point – had still eluded the Red Sox, and maintaining the dull, passionless monotone that indicated he didn’t care about baseball in the visceral way that was a hallmark of being involved with the Red Sox.
Through what was promoted as a dedication to an intense workout regimen, a laser-like focus to one’s craft and a determination to prove Duquette wrong, Clemens set the standard for a late-career renaissance, defying age and predictions of a decline with a high-level performance into his 40s.
Of course, in retrospect, it was all a lie. Clemens is widely believed to have achieved his late-career heights through a combination of pitching knowledge, hard workouts and a significant amount of performance enhancing drugs. Duquette’s failures with the Red Sox are now viewed in a different light. He was moderately successful given the circumstances. For laying a large part of the foundation he gets lukewarm credit from those who portray John Henry as the club’s savior and Theo Epstein as the youthful genius and architect of the Red Sox three championship teams from 2004 to 2013 since it was Duquette who traded for Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe, signed Manny Ramirez, and drafted Kevin Youkilis.
Ironically as Clemens plummeted in the eyes of the public and became a baseball pariah – he settled his defamation lawsuit with former trainer, whistleblower and PED provider Brian McNamee just this week – Duquette has gone from a running joke who couldn’t get a job in Major League Baseball to winning Executive of the Year as Baltimore Orioles general manager, rebuilding the team back to relevance after years of embarrassment as a wasteland for over-the-hill veterans desperate for a job and final payday, and was the main target to take over as president of the aforementioned Blue Jays.
1996 seems like a long time ago because it is a long time ago. But it’s a long time ago both literally and figuratively. While Clemens was at the height of his powers and a testament to his love of baseball, competing and greatness, Duquette was viewed as someone who would never again helm a big league team.
Duquette never gloated publicly, but he didn’t have to. In the end, all the vitriol, hatred and criticism is meaningless because in hindsight, he won.
The point of all this isn’t just to point out how Clemens rose and Duquette fell after that fateful decision to let Clemens leave the Red Sox and Duquette’s honest statement that he didn’t believe the then-34-year-old was ever going to regain his dominance. It’s that the perspective of being “right” or “vindicated” can’t be known until the story is told – truthfully and in its entirety – as to what really happened.
The reality of the Aiken situation isn’t linked to prescience on the part of the Astros. If that were the case, why did they only reduce the offer upon which they had a principal agreement with Aiken from $6.5 million to $5 million? Was that an amount of money they felt comfortable blowing on an injured pitcher just to save face for drafting him first overall? And if face-saving is the objective, what does that say about their attachment to numbers and business principles?
The Astros, by then, must have been keenly aware that they’d blown $3.25 million on Jesse Crain, not receiving one single pitch from him in the minors or majors.
The money wasn’t the issue.
The fact is they saw an opportunity for themselves to save that $1.5 million, sign two other players they wanted – Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix – and get Aiken at a discount. If Aiken signed and needed Tommy John surgery, so what? The vast proportion of pitchers who have the ligament replacement procedure are not only able to come back, but they come back even better than they were before. For a pitcher like Aiken who was compared to Clayton Kershaw and who Astros scouts said had a chance to be one of the best pitchers in the history of the game, $6.5 million is a minuscule amount to pay when calculating all the factors into the equation. If they were really worried, why didn’t they do what the Texas Rangers did with R.A. Dickey after he was a first round draft pick who, it was discovered, didn’t have the ulnar collateral ligament in his arm at all and lower his bonus at the same percentage the Rangers did when they reduced Dickey’s offer from more than $800,000 to $75,000?
They wanted Aiken. They wanted Nix. They wanted Marshall. The elbow might have been a slight worry, but it wasn’t so terrible that they walked away from the player. In the end, they might have been right to be concerned, but they weren’t right because of the concerns. They were simply trying to be clever and may have been justified by Aiken getting hurt.
Those among the Astros and in their media and fan base who are doing a full 180 and chortling over Aiken’s misfortune and the Astros’ foresight probably shouldn’t be too impressed with themselves. After their first several years of being shielded by the stat-centric media like some (sober) Secret Service and a fanatical fan base buying into the talking points as if they’re gospel presented from the baseball Gods like a hypnotized constituency hoping and praying that they’ll benefit in the end, the clock is finally ticking on Luhnow and his staff. They have to show on-field improvement this year or there will be a call for changes in the front office and how they conduct business. The Aiken injury might give them some breathing space, but not much and not for the right reasons.
In the next decade, we’ll see who was smarter and whether or not Aiken fulfills the promise or winds up flaming out as a broken down bust. The Astros and their remaining avid supporters would be better-served to keep their mouths shut in public and in private rather than celebrating over an injury to an 18-year-old as a means to prove that they were “right” and hammer home the rightness of a plan that is still yet to yield any tangible, on-field benefits.