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.