Despite Tommy John surgery, Aiken worth the risk for Indians

Brady Aiken tweeted a photo in March after having Tommy John Surgery. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week that Aiken has not had any setbacks so far.

Brady Aiken/Twitter

The Indians have had a track record of signing players who have had injury histories and rehabbing them. With the 17th overall selection in Monday’s MLB Draft, they took the best player available on their board in left-hander Brady Aiken, who is recovering from Tommy John Surgery.

Aiken is also known as only the third top overall pick in the past 30 years not to sign. Houston took the San Diego native last year. Both sides initially agreed to a deal but the Astros then lowered their offer after a post-draft physical left them concerned about the condition of Aiken’s left elbow.

Instead of going to UCLA, Aiken enrolled at the IMG Academy in Florida so that he would be eligible for this year’s draft (had he gone to UCLA, Aiken’s next opportunity to be drafted would have been after his junior season). Aiken went only 13 pitches into his first start at IMG before injuring the elbow and undergoing surgery on March 26.

"We did our due diligence and feel good about selecting him," Indians director of scouting Brad Grant said. "The one thing that stands out about him is his commitment and work ethic along with his willingness to progress from here."

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week that Aiken’s rehab is going well and that his recovery remains on track.

"It was a very difficult decision, but it also was an informed decision based on circumstances only a few people know the truth about," Aiken wrote in an article for The Players’ Tribune in March about not signing. "When I decided not to sign, I knew injuries were always a possibility. Two other pitchers drafted after me in the first round last year were picked by their teams despite just having undergone Tommy John surgery. This is just a temporary setback."

Aiken was referring to Jeff Hoffman, who was the ninth overall pick by Toronto, and Erick Fedde, who Washington took with the 18th pick. Both had their surgeries last May. Hoffman is pitching for Class-A Dunedin while Fedde is still rehabbing. The Nationals are hoping he can begin throwing in minor-league games next month.

Scouting reports last year had Aiken’s fastball reaching 97 miles per hour and often reaching the low 90’s. Velocity for a pitcher usually improves after Tommy John surgery. Scouts also raved about Aiken’s command of the strike zone as well as his athleticism. Besides his fastball, Aiken has a very good curveball as a secondary pitch as well as using a changeup and slider.

After turning down a $5 million offer from the Astros last season, the slotting price for this year’s 17th pick is $2.393 million. The Indians’ bonus pool to sign the players they draft in the first 10 rounds is $7.2 million. Last year Hoffman signed for the slotted amount of $3.1 million and Fredde signed for $2.511 million, which was slightly over the slotted amount.

Aiken joins CC Sabathia and Justus Sheffield as the only high school, left-handers that the Indians have taken in the first round in the past 35 years. Sabathia was the organization’s second Cy Young Award winner in 2007 while Sheffield, who was selected last year, is pitching for Lake County.

The Indians’ farm system has improved over the past couple seasons, but only one of the top 10 projected prospects is a pitcher (Sheffield). Besides Aiken, the Tribe selected right-hander Triston McKenzie with the 42nd overall pick and lefty Juan Hillman at No. 59.

McKenzie graduated from Royal Palm Beach High School and will attend Vanderbilt if he opts not to sign. Hillman, who went to Olympia High School in Orlando and is committed to Central Florida, has Tom "Flash" Gordon as his legal guardian.