Casey Close represents Derek Jeter, Clayton Kershaw and a number of other baseball stars. Close is considered one of the most respected and discreet agents in baseball, and rarely if ever comments on ongoing contract negotiations.
But with a Friday deadline nearing for the Astros to sign high school left-hander Brady Aiken, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Close on Monday sharply criticized both the Astros and Major League Baseball for the way the team has handled negotiations with the pitcher.
“We are extremely disappointed that Major League Baseball is allowing the Astros to conduct business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the draft and the 29 other clubs who have followed those same rules,” said Close, who serves as a family advisor to Aiken.
The standoff could lead the Astros to lose their reported $6.5 million agreement with Aiken and $1.5 million deal with their fifth-round pick, high-school right-hander Jacob Nix, who also is advised by Close.
At issue: Whether the Astros are using a medical concern to pressure Aiken into accepting a lower bonus so that they can sign Nix and their 21st-round pick, high-school left-hander Mac Marshall.
“Throughout this process, we have been in touch with MLB to ensure that we are adhering to the rules at every point and we are confident that this has been the case,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
Pat Courtney, a spokesman for baseball, said, “Major League Baseball is comfortable that the Houston Astros have acted in complete accord with major league rules.”
If the Astros do not complete their deals with Aiken and Nix, the players can accept college scholarships and re-enter the draft at a later date, file grievances through the union or even pursue litigation.
“We’ll weigh all of our options in support of the players,” head of the players union Tony Clark said.
The core issue in the dispute is the condition of Aiken’s left arm.
The Astros, at a time of mounting concern about elbow injuries to pitchers, believe that Aiken’s physical revealed a “significant abnormality” in the area of his elbow ligament, according to major-league sources.
Close, however, said that Aiken not only is asymptomatic, but also touched 97 mph in his final start before the draft.
“Brady has been seen by some of the most experienced and respected orthopedic arm specialists in the country, and all of those doctors have acknowledged that he’s not injured and that he’s ready to start his professional career,” Close said.
Luhnow declined to discuss Aiken’s physical condition, saying, “With regard to any health-related issues, we respect the privacy of the players involved and abide by Federal HIPAA regulations and will not comment on any specifics without the player’s consent.”
The Astros, Close said, made one revised offer to Aiken of $3,168,840 million – the minimum amount required to ensure that they would receive the second overall pick of the 2015 draft as compensation if they failed to sign Aiken.
Why would the Astros risk more than $3.1 million on Aiken but not $6.5 million? In part, sources said, to protect their rights to the 2015 pick – and in part because that they believe that Aiken was worth the investment at the lower number.
The situation, according to one source, is not unlike what Indiana State left-hander Sean Manaea experienced in the 2013 draft. Manaea, projected to go with one of the top picks, suffered a hip injury that caused him to slide to No. 34 – and his value to drop to $3.55 million. But his injury forced him to miss time and affected his performance. Aiken’s “abnormality” has not.
Baseball people often say that the arm of every pitcher has some imperfection that would be revealed by an MRI. The Astros, in the opinion of some agents and union officials, are using a perceived flaw with Aiken’s elbow as a way to manipulate the draft.
The Astros signed a high pick with a different physical issue, awarding their fourth rounder, Texas A&M right-hander Daniel Mengden, a $470,000 bonus even though he had a stress fracture in his back.
Close and the union are particularly upset that the Astros have tied the signing of Aiken to the signing of Nix, who remains in limbo despite passing his physical.
It is standard industry protocol for players to agree to contract terms, then take physicals as the final step in finalizing a contract. But the Astros, after reaching agreement with Nix, notified his family that the offer would be rescinded because the team first needed to complete Aiken’s deal, Close said.
Baseball officials say that the draft rules allow clubs to go above and below assigned bonus values with individual picks. The way the system works, money that goes to one player does not go another. The club simply must stay within its pool.
The Astros, if they fail to sign Aiken, would lose his assigned bonus value of $7,922,100. If they then signed Nix, they would exceed the maximum they are allowed to spend in the first round 10 rounds of the 2014 draft, triggering the loss of at least one future pick.
“We believe that it is a clear violation of the rules being attempted solely to avoid penalty,” Clark said. “The Astros made a deal with Jacob Nix and should honor that agreement.”
Close said that if every team behaved like the Astros, then the entire structure of the draft would collapse.
“If every player was contingent on another player, we would have no draft, we would have no draft pool, we would have no signings,” Close said. “We’d never be able to reach agreements. They’d either all be reached at the same time, or none of them would ever be reached.”
The more immediate question is whether Aiken and his family will even be comfortable signing with the Astros, knowing that the team harbors suspicions about the condition of his arm.
The clock is ticking. The No. 1 pick in the country remains unsigned.