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Draft : : Story
Aiken goes against history
Allan Simpson        
Published: Monday, June 09, 2014

2014 Perfect Game MLB Draft preview content | Aiken goes No. 1, signs for $6.5M

Astros Go Against Draft History,

Pick Prep Pitcher Aiken No. 1

On one hand, the Houston Astros have plenty of experience at picking first overall in baseball’s first-year player draft. On the other, they bucked 50 years of draft history by potentially gambling on a high school pitcher with the No. 1 pick this year.

The Astros earned the dubious distinction of choosing first for an unprecedented third draft in a row, their reward for three consecutive 100-loss seasons—the only time in club history they’ve reached triple digits. After again keeping their draft strategy close to the vest right up until the moment they made the pick, the Astros ended up taking the player industry insiders thought they would take all along, San Diego prep lefthander and 2013 PG All-American Brady Aiken.

Aiken, 17, completes a trifecta of consecutive top selections by the Astros in the draft, joining Carlos Correa, a high school shortstop from Puerto Rico in 2012, and Mark Appel, a college righthander from Stanford a year ago.

With eight prep shortstops and 12 college righthanders among the first overall picks through the years, Correa and Appel represented the most popular demographic at the high school and college levels since the draft process was instituted in 1965. High school pitchers? Now that’s a different story.

Aiken becomes just the third high school arm taken first in the draft (and the first in 23 years), and the track record of the previous two is checkered, to say the least, as lefthander David Clyde, the top pick in 1973, went only 18-33 in his abbreviated big-league career, while another lefty, Brien Taylor never even pitched in the majors after injuring his pitching shoulder in an off-field altercation.

Moreover, prep pitchers of any kind in the first round are inherently riskier than college pitchers. Not only does it typically take them more time to reach the majors—at that, only 63 percent of first-round prep arms even make it—but scouts usually have a smaller body of work to evaluate them.

Despite that track record, the Astros showed little hesitation in taking Aiken, who made huge strides as a pitching prospect this spring at San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High, going 7-0, 1.06 with 15 walks and 111 strikeouts in 60 innings after beginning the 2014 season as a longshot to even crack the top half of the first round.

We feel in the category of high school pitchers, this is about as safe a player as you can have,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “He’s got the polish, he’s got the stuff, he’s got the command, he has the delivery we like, he’s got the makeup, he’s got the size. It’s really hard to poke any holes in this player at all, except for the fact that he’s young, and we really didn’t want to hold that against him.”

The Astros indicated that they seriously considered six players for the No. 1 pick this year, with North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon and Texas prep righthander Tyler Kolek undoubtedly among them. Along with Aiken, those three were easily considered the cream of the crop in a pitching-rich draft. Kolek ended up going second overall to the Miami Marlins and Rodon third to the Chicago White Sox.

Both Kolek, with his local Texas roots and a fastball that was clocked up to 102 mph this spring (the highest recorded velocity ever by a prep pitcher), and Rodon, an advanced college lefthander who began the 2014 season as the consensus top pick, held significant appeal to the Astros, but Aiken became the player of choice.

It was a really tough decision,” Luhnow acknowledged. “We've been following this kid for a while, we really like him a lot, but what separated it for us was not only the talent, but the makeup of this young man. We really think that's going to separate him and allow him to achieve his potential. He’s a young, dynamic, high-upside lefthanded pitcher that we haven't had in a while, and the potential is as high as anybody we've had in the organization.”

Aiken began to assemble his credentials as the top pick for 2014 when he started the 2013 Perfect Game All-American Classic for the West squad, and later starred for USA Baseball’s junior-national team last September in Taiwan at the 18-and-under World Cup. He won both his starts in Taiwan, including a win over Japan in the gold-medal game in which allowed one run and struck out 10 in seven innings.

That performance convinced Aiken that he might have a shot at becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft this year, and he set out to get bigger and stronger prior to his senior season with that goal in mind.

I sat down with my advisor and my trainer and my parents, and I really had the goal that I wanted to be the best player in the country,” Aiken said. “It was a lot of hard work, a lot of early mornings working out, but hard work in the off-season truly paid off for me in the spring season.”

Aiken typically topped out in the low-90s in the past, but his fastball sat at a steady 92-93 mph
this spring and frequently reached 96-97 mph. Combined with a better curve and an advanced feel for his changeup, along with impressive poise, command and approach for a 17-year-old, scouts quickly began looking at Aiken with a different eye that ultimately led to his selection as the No. 1 pick.

Under terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that w
ent into effect with the 2012 draft and coincided with Houston landing the first of its three straight first overall selections, the amount of $7,922,100 was allotted this year as the signing bonus for the No. 1 pick. But the Astros have never used the maximum amount of their allotment, and were not expected to on Aiken, who reportedly agreed to a pre-draft bonus of about $6.5 million. From all indications, his signing is imminent.

The shortfall of roughly $1.4 million in bonus money will enable the Astros to apply it to other draft picks—possibly to their next two selections, Virginia outfielder Derek Fisher and Kentucky first baseman A.J. Reed, two prolific college bats taken with the 37th
 and 42nd picks overall. Teams may apply bonuses to draft picks in the first 10 rounds pretty much as they see fit, so long as the collective amount does not exceed their bonus-pool allotment by more than five percent, above which they’d be subject to fines and/or loss of future draft picks.

Repo
rtedly, one of the considerations for Houston not choosing to select Rodon with the No. 1 pick was Rodon’s unwillingness, through adviser Scott Boras, to compromise on the full amount of the slot value for the first pick. Aiken was willing to make the compromise, and that paved his way for going No. 1.

Once Aiken, Kolek and Rodon were scooped up with the first three picks, the rest of the first round went pretty much according to form with four high school selections occupying the top six selections, and then a run on college players through the middle part of the first round.

The Chicago Cubs pulled the first big surprise early in the draft by taking Indiana University catcher Kyle Schwarber at No. 4. The lefty swinger was rated No. 2 overall on the Cubs draft board, but was not seen as a consensus top-10 pick by most clubs.

Overall, there were more high school than college selections claimed through the first two rounds (40 of 74 picks), but only 45 more prep picks were made from Rounds 3-10. Once again, teams strategically drafted a wealth of college seniors later in the first 10 rounds to give them maximum flexibility with their allowable bonus pool limits. College seniors have significantly less leverage than any draft demographic and in all, 55 seniors were selected in the first 10 rounds, along with 14 fourth-year juniors.



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