The Aiken affair

Last week, the Houston Astros made history in the worst way by being the first team to not sign the No. 1 overall pick since 1983. It may go down as a historic blunder. The ramifications of not signing Brady Aiken are far-reaching for the organization and a number of its 2014 draftees.

A building plan going to waste

A plan predicated on getting young talent through the draft in high positions that’s not necessarily college talent (those who are generally closer to MLB-ready) depends on timing. Look no further than the Marlins of 1997 and 2003. Two World Series runs were made entirely built on a strategy of using talent that came together at the right time. After winning the championship, they started over due to small-market restrictions.

The Astros already somewhat into their long-term plan, as a chunk of the talent drafted and acquired via trade — Jon Singleton, Jarred Cosart, L.J. Hoes, Domingo Santana and Dallas Keuchel — is already at the major league level. Failing to sign three players, including two of early round potential (one a No. 1 overall) works against the talent-compiling objective.

This year might not be the only aspect of this failure, though. If this year’s performance is any indicator, it appears the Astros might also have whiffed on Mark Appel from last year. His numbers skyrocketed in a bad way this year, as he sits at A+ Lancaster with a 10.80 ERA. The 2013 first round selection has faced a number of injuries, and speculation leads some to say he may have been poorly picked.

Houston passed on Appel in 2012 to save money. Though they saved the money when signing him the next year as well, perhaps passing on Appel again would have served them well. That year’s No. 2 selection, Kris Bryant, is hitting .324 for the Cubs’ AAA affiliate. He has 33 home runs so far this year.

Additionally, 2012’s No. 1 pick, Carlos Correa, sits out the remainder of the year due to a fractured fibula. Given the situation, it’s exceedingly bad timing to have a chunk of the 2014 draft go to waste. Nothing seems to be going right for the Astros this year in terms of their top selections.

They could conceivably have the first two picks next year, but they’ve completely botched one leg of this rebuilding project. It’s as if they’ve put all the eggs in the basket of next year’s draft, because there’s almost no way they can be this bad next year. The No. 2 overall pick could be the highest they see for a while as some of their young talent enters the majors and they see a minor improvement into mediocrity. For a club that’s supposed to come together in 2017, those are huge steps back. (The Sixers seem to be doing better with this long-term strategy thing.)

Current major league talent

A number of current Astros players are from a 2011 trade of Hunter Pence to Philadelphia. The Phillies gave up a lot for one year of Hunter Pence: Singleton, Cosart and Santana. In hindsight, Phillies fans have clamored at the short-sightedness of the trade.

It certainly was a short-sighted move, but Pence was meant to bolster an offense that was the cause for elimination in the first round of the playoffs. In that sense, it was the right move, but to little effect, as the Cardinals knocked them out in the first round by outdueling the offense. But that’s not the point here. The point is that the Astros may be wasting that same talent so well-scouted out of the Phillies organization.

Some other Houston talent — L.J. Hoes, received in last year’s Bud Norris trade, and 2009 selection Dallas Keuchel — sits in the majors as well, timed to be successful but not too expensive by the time 2013 and 2014 picks reach the majors. But that ship may have sailed. The Astros have squandered a portion of the gift that is the amateur draft.

The future — for unsigned draftees and the club

So Aiken, Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall will all move on for the next few years. If the quirks of Aiken’s arm are serious enough, he may drop in another draft or run into a wall at the college level. But even if that happens, the Astros cannot be fully vindicated. They lost so much more than just the No. 1 draft pick.

Nix and Marshall were good talents kept out of the organization by the either the politics or realities of another selection. Nix loses out because the Astros can’t sign him to a reasonable bonus after losing the money slotted to the first pick. He’ll decide between UCLA and junior college and do his best to raise his stock. He will need to prove his worth to scouts again before receiving a similar bonus, which would likely require a higher draft selection.

Marshall loses the least of all involved, as the money the Astros were trying to free up was to lure him away from Louisiana State University. Considered a top-round talent, he’ll attend LSU as originally planned and, if he does well, will go early in a later draft.

The Astros remain on the losing side in all regards, which is why it’s puzzling they didn’t figure out how to swing a deal. They lose the ability to stock their system with at least two of these three talented prospects. For that reason, after signing Brady Aiken — even if he may have been a bit of a risk — he was a risk the Astros should have taken.

Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.

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