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astros logoHigh school lefty Brady Aiken was the consensus top player in the 2014 MLB Draft, so it was unsurprising to see him selected first overall by the Astros. But with the signing deadline coming at the end of this week, it is surprising to see Aiken still unsigned, and a drama unfolding that could result in him not signing at all.

For the long version, you can read this fascinating piece by Ken Rosenthal, but the short version is this: the Astros and Aiken agreed on an under slot deal at $6.5 million, but, after reviewing medicals, the Astros have reduced their offer significantly. There is a dispute about just how concerning those medicals – which reportedly reveal an elbow ligament abnormality – should be with respect to a proper signing bonus. The Astros are trying to use the extra savings to come to terms with two more later round over slot types. As it stands, things are getting really heated between Aiken’s camp (his advisor also represents one of the two over-slot players the Astros are trying to sign – awkward!) and the Astros. The Players Association and MLB could get involved soon as well.

Either way, there is now a very real chance that the Astros will fail to sign Aiken, who would then have to either pitch in a juco or independent ball before returning to the draft next year, or head to college and wait three years to be drafted again. (It’s also possible he files a grievance, wins, and becomes a free agent. I would call that unlikely, though.)

The failure to sign Aiken could be significant in a number of ways.

First, it’s just … well, it’s notable that a team would fail to sign the top overall pick. The Cubs are on record as saying the only player in the draft they would have picked ahead of Kyle Schwarber was Aiken. Would the Cubs have felt the same way if they knew whatever it is that the Astros now think they know about Aiken’s elbow?

Second, what if Aiken does decide to go the independent ball route for a year so that he can be drafted early again next year? Will teams be scared off by this, or will they be excited to get another crack at him?

Third, because it is tied to the Astros’ attempt to sign over slot guys later in the draft, the failure to sign Aiken would not only blow up the Astros’ draft, but it would call into question the entire current draft structure – because of the bonus pool setup, teams are forced to do this kind of thing (playing one player off another) to avoid draconian penalties. Could this situation militate toward additional draft changes in the next CBA?

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly: if the Astros fail to sign Aiken, they get the number two overall pick next year as compensation. That could cause two issues for a team like the Cubs, who project to be among the early pickers in next year’s draft.

If the Cubs wind up with, say, the second worst record in baseball, they would not actually get to pick second next year – they’d pick third. As we’ve seen, the difference between players available at the very top of a draft can swing dramatically from pick to pick, and it would stink to have your spot bumped down one because of something like this.

Further, if the Astros get that second pick, that means there would be only nine other “protected” draft slots next year. That’s because the team with the 10th worst record would actually pick 11th next year, and would not have its first round pick protected from being lost as compensation for signing a qualified free agent.

If this sounds familiar, you may remember that the New York Mets, who picked 11th in 2013, wanted to sign Michael Bourn before that season. But, as a free agent who had received and rejected a qualifying offer, Bourn was subject to draft pick compensation. That meant, if the Mets signed him, they would lose that first round pick. They argued, however, that because their pick was bumped down one spot by the Pirates receiving a compensatory pick (for failing to sign Mark Appel the year before), their pick should still be protected (because they had the 10th worst record in 2012, and those are the teams the rule was designed to protect).

Philosophically, I agree with the Mets position, but the explicit language of the rule is pretty clear, referencing only the top ten picks as protected. Long story short, Bourn wound up signing with the Indians before the issue was resolved, so we don’t know how this would play out “next time.” If the Cubs are going to stink anyway, let’s just hope they finish in the bottom 9 records and avoid the issue altogether.

What a crazy story this has turned into. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ top pick, Kyle Schwarber, signed a month ago, has killed the ball, and has already reached High-A Daytona.

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