Aiken’s injury doesn’t validate the Astros

MLB

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.

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Ryan Vogelsong’s experience with the Astros has a familiar ring

MLB

Even though Brady Aiken and Ryan Vogelsong are at radically different stages of their careers, there’s a damning similarity to their dealings with the Houston Astros. They didn’t sign for basically the same reason – team concerns about their physicals and an attempt on the part of the organization to get a financial discount because of them – and their situations are comparable in the amount of damage that can be done to the organization over the long and short term because of the fallout.

At first glance, the Astros’ failure to sign 2014 first overall draft pick Aiken will be viewed as the bigger gaffe and could be exponentially more ruinous to the organization than their failure to sign the veteran free agent righty Vogelsong. This is especially true if Aiken develops into anything close to the pitcher Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow compared him to, Clayton Kershaw, when he’s drafted again this June. However, it would be unwise to dismiss the failure to sign Vogelsong as meaningless especially with the revelation as to why a deal suddenly came apart with Vogelsong going back to his former team, the San Francisco Giants, and implying that the negotiations broke down in a manner that the veteran Vogelsong had never seen and couldn’t believe.

The careers trajectories of Aiken and Vogelsong couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. As a pending first round draft pick, Aiken will be given every opportunity to make it to and stick in the Major Leagues until his arm turns to shreds. Vogelsong bounced from team to team and country to country trying to find a place where he could make the most of an opportunity and he did so with the Giants.

The real story that Vogelsong cryptically alluded to at the time of the breakdown of negotiations is that the Astros repeated the process with him that they did with Aiken: after coming to an unofficial agreement on a contract, they spotted issues in his physical that led to an attempt to reduce the value of the deal. Like Aiken, Vogelsong chose not to sign. The loss of Aiken culminated in the failure to sign other draft picks – Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix – who were set to be signed but whose deals were contingent on the singing of Aiken. Like unintentional and unexpected collateral destruction, once Aiken’s deal collapsed, so too did the deals with the other two draftees. The Astros looked petty and foolish adding to the implication that they don’t know how to treat people or do know how to treat people, but just don’t care to do so. The constant upheaval, repeated firings, exodus of marginalized employees and total lack of humanity has left Luhnow and his staff needing to show dramatic improvement in 2015 to validate their method of running the franchise. The sense of urgency to succeed is increasing as their image tumbles.

The Astros are a very data-centric organization with a wealth of highly intelligent people in charge. The fact that their resumes are impressive when it comes to numbers, formulas, education and degrees and that they’ve become media darlings in certain circles for their unabashed immersion into sabermetrics and constant search for new innovations to achieve their goals doesn’t make them people savvy and it doesn’t make them street smart.

Given his rise from a career in the business world as the president of marketing for Petstore.com among other positions, it’s a legitimate question as to whether Luhnow truly understands that an athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his profession isn’t the equivalent of a damaged box of kitty litter, a display shoe, a piece of meat that is close to its expiration date, or a used car. You can’t get a discount because of a slight amount of wear and tear on a human being, especially one who can go somewhere else and get the money he wants.

The last two analogies are perfectly fitting for the way the Astros are acting. Trying to get a discount on Vogelsong is the equivalent of a ruthless assessment of any veteran athlete as a piece of meat close to being past its sell-by date. Calling Luhnow a used car salesman is also apropos given the questionable manner in which he runs his operation, uses slick and ambiguous terminology, and treats people as if they’re fungible pieces to be discarded at his convenience.

While there’s a logical explanation for them to have tried to reduce the amount they were set to pay Vogelsong and Aiken, it won’t be seen in the same logical context by players and agents. Perhaps the club is so scarred by the $3.25 million they donated to Jesse Crain in 2014, receiving a nice round number of innings (zero), that the front office decided they’d never repeat that mistake again no matter who the player was. Maybe owner Jim Crane made it a point to tell Luhnow that he’s not in the habit of tossing that amount of money into the toilet and it had better not happen again. Or maybe their attempt to remake baseball into an entity that is on a similar plane with your regular run-of-the-mill corporation and will treat their employees as if their skills are eminently replaceable is clouding their judgment and hindering the reality that the number of people who can play Major League Baseball is minuscule compared to finding a mid-level employee to replace another mid-level employee to work at Petstore.com.

The Astros are trying to run their club in a manner identical to how a conventional business does. But baseball is not a conventional business. While some aspects of what Luhnow did at his jobs outside the realm of baseball are applicable and can be transferred, others can’t. They’re trying to save money, but what they’re actually doing is costing themselves more money in the long run when they try to sign veteran players who have options. The situation in which they’ve placed themselves will limit them to a certain type of player who: has nowhere else to go; will sign with the Astros for a short-term deal knowing that he’ll get a chance to play to replenish or establish value; they have to overpay to get. This past off-season, they had the high offer on the table for Andrew Miller and he decided to go to the New York Yankees for substantially less money. Was that because of the Yankees’ history? Probably yes…in part. But did the Astros’ image throughout baseball also influence Miller? Obviously.

Vogelsong can express himself intelligently, is well-liked by other players, isn’t known as a complainer and has been everywhere from coast to coast and even in Japan trying to establish himself. For him to say that the Astros’ behavior was unbelievable that it would shock others when he told the story will carry some weight. Add in that it wasn’t just Vogelsong they’ve done this too and it becomes a pattern of behavior that could be a problem for them going forward.

Veterans will avoid them for their treatment of Vogelsong. Amateurs will take note of what they did to Aiken and rue the day they’re forced to deal with the organization. This isn’t nitpicking over a way an organization does business, it’s an issue that they’ve cultivated with their borderline anti-social, inhuman view of players. That reputation is nearly impossible to shake. Winning a few games in 2015 will help, but the difficulty of the American League West and that they’re relying on so many young players doesn’t guarantee they’ll improve much, if at all, from the 70 wins in 2014.

While they have all the explanations for their tactics at the ready, they’re missing out on the fact that there’s no complicated MIT-level algorithm to calculate the devaluation their organization might suffer from due to negative reputations and whispers that are clearly going on with players, agents, and baseball people worldwide. Players talk. Agents talk. No player wants to be viewed as a necessary evil to achieve the front office’s ends, but that’s exactly how the Astros treat their players. The Vogelsong incident is more evidence.