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Assets and Aiken: The Houston Astros and Capital

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The Brady Aiken debacle must mean something. But what?

"Hey, ask me about being an asset."
"Hey, ask me about being an asset."
Cooper Neill

When I was a lot younger, and before I trekked out to Chicago to try and wrangle a PhD, I sat down with a friend of mine to talk about his idea for starting a private school. My friend, Mike, was a fairly pure-hearted dude about this ambition, and as far as I know, he still is: he likes kids, and he especially likes education. He thinks he would be good at organizing it, and I agree. That said, my own blind spots started to shine through when I sat down to talk with him, casually, about some ideas I had for the school. I'd been getting more into sabermetrics, and I thought that the way poorer teams constructed their rosters might inform how a small private school -- without the budget or reach of established private schools or public schools -- could most efficiently organize their own roster of teachers. "If we could figure out a new metric for evaluating these teachers," I offered him, "we could get some teachers who fell through the cracks and who don't have jobs, but would teach better than some who do." Basically the OBP thesis for baseball and the A's, but for education.

Yet, as I worked it out with him, we both came to an uncomfortable conclusion. Not only did it seem deeply inhumane and antithetical to our own beliefs to grade teachers using standardized metrics, but it was also fairly distressing to imagine finding these poor, gifted teachers and pay them peanuts because only we knew how good they were.  It was cornering a market and then keeping that market profitable to us by deflating salaries: it was, you can imagine, not exactly my finest moment as a burgeoning socialist.

I'm telling you this story so I can tell you another one: the story of the Houston Astros and how they made me suddenly have a similarly uncomfortable epiphany about baseball. On Friday, around five PM (the deadline for signing Rule Four draftees), it became clear that the Astros were not going to be able to sign top overall pick Brady Aiken.  Nor, as it happens, were they going to be able to sign fifth rounder Jacob Nix or 21st round prep pitcher Mac Marshall. It was a hugely disappointing result for the Houston front office as well as the long suffering fan base, and certainly we can imagine that in a perfect world, all three players would be signed.

But the truth is a little bit more complicated than that. Aiken could certainly have been signed for the slot value of $7,992, 100, and indeed, if you believe agent Casey Close and Aiken's camp, for less still than that, around 6.5 million. Furthermore, Nix had a 1.5 million dollar deal with the Astros, one that was over his $370,500 slot and was verbally agreed to but that was taken off of the table when GM Jeff Luhnow and the Houston front office told him that it was contingent on Aiken taking a dramatically under slot deal. And why would Aiken take such a lowball offer? Houston says it is because he has a UCL that's hanging on by a thread, though Aiken's doctors don't seem to agree with this assessment. In the end, Aiken was offered five million dollars by Houston, but rejected the deal, and since Houston's first round slot money therefore comes off the books, Nix and Miller (who were going to be ostensibly signed with the 4 million extra dollars saved on a broken Aiken) were unable to be signed as well.

Get all that? So what happened here? Well, basically, Houston tried to game the slotting system and, unlike the 2012 draft where they managed to turn an under slot Carlos Correa into Lance McCullers, Jr and Rio Ruiz, Aiken didn't blink.  As a result, an attempt to save some money on the top end of the draft and distribute prospect risk and value turned into a near 8 million dollar loss, dead money unable to be spent. Unlike the Phillies' own draft day debacle in JD Drew, the Astros are playing against the far more rigid slotting system: one cannot "just" overpay prospects anymore.  If anything, you have to get creative, and if your creativity doesn't quite pan out, the house of cards falls apart. In a very real way, the Astros are getting penalized for trying to maximize their return on the very edge of the rules.

But is that really right? What gets lost in such an explanation? The MLB Players' Union seems to see Aiken and Nix -- who each had contracts offered and then denied -- as victims in all of this, and I'm compelled to agree. Marshall perhaps ends up where we'd expect: a high school arm going to college to raise his draft stock. But Nix and Aiken are stuck in an odd limbo -- will they go to school and take three years before going pro? will they go to a Junior College and reenter next year? -- all because of a contingent contract and a phantom injury respectively. This is of course not to mention that both owner Jim Crane and Luhnow himself dropped Casey Close's name in relation to Aiken, and given the NCAA's itchy trigger finger, you don't have to squint too hard to see some rough times ahead for the most coveted pitcher in the 2014 class.

But of course, we should keep in mind two inevitable reactions: one, that Aiken should have taken the five million as it'll be more than you or I will ever see in a single check; and two, that in truth, the Astros were just operating within the system given to them by MLB. The first point seems easily addressed: if your boss pulled you aside after offering you a 200,000 dollar contract and told you that company doctors had found a flaw that your doctors didn't, and could you please take 1,333,000 instead, you'd be mad. In fact, I'd wager a good number of us would reject the deal on pride alone; if this is all that happened with Aiken, I can't blame him for it. The second point, however, is more interesting; while the slotting system is part of this system, the Astros are indeed stuck within a system that is given a blessing by MLB and the MLBPA, and as such, those entities must also shoulder some of the blame. Here's a shorter take on it:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>One thing about Houston/Aiken: I know the Astros didn&#39;t break any rules--that doesn&#39;t mean what they did wasn&#39;t unethical.</p>&mdash; Michael Baumann (@MJ_Baumann) <a href="https://twitter.com/MJ_Baumann/statuses/491285965433217024">July 21, 2014</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>So if you wanted to shift some of the blame to the system set up by MLB/MLBPA/NCAA, you wouldn&#39;t be wrong.</p>&mdash; Michael Baumann (@MJ_Baumann) <a href="https://twitter.com/MJ_Baumann/statuses/491286294883221505">July 21, 2014</a></blockquote>

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(nb: Baumann has a piece on this himself over at Grantland that, in attempting to assure some purity of thought, I haven't read. But it's almost definitely worth your time.)

So what does shifting blame to the system mean? Well, not least of all, it means understanding what the Astros' method implies: that assets-per-dollar ratios need to be maximized. This is all well and good within baseball, as we judge our GMs this way (Amaro bad; Mozeliak good), as well as the outcomes of drafts (WAR per pick), and season performance (WAR/$). We marvel at Evan Longoria's contract because, boy, he sure provides more than he's paid. We pray for a surplus of talent on our team at cheap cheap costs. And we fetishize prospects, hoping the Phillies will get the next Mike Trout who will hit dingers and sell shirtsies for a song.

But assets, in baseball, are people. Assets, as it happens, in all of capitalist exchange, boil down to people. And the pursuit of a greater and greater surplus of talent to money spent means that every team's end goal is to pay their players less than what they deserve. "Luckiest man on the face of the Earth" speeches notwithstanding, the job of a ballplayer is to play baseball for money, and the goal of a front office is to try and get them to do it for cheap. While the onset of sabermetric analysis has been a wonderful opening up of valuations and metrics that help us understand the game better, it's also somehow put us on the side of management. We no longer care to have our favorite player in town til the end of his contract: the smart fan wants cheap cost-controlled talent instead. Never mind what the player -- old and young -- might want. The savvy GM ekes out the extra profit margin and wins on surplus.

But of course this is a grim way to understand the game. No one wants to root for laundry, Seinfeldian epiphanies notwithstanding, and we find ways to rationalize this troubling dynamic. This is, in part, because it's impossible to stare into the gut of any economic system and suss out the truth. Marxists call this many things: ideology, false consciousness, mystification. But for the sake of simplification, let's just describe it as "making the sausage taste right." We all know that snouts, and butts, and unmentionables go into the mix, but we still buy a dog when the cart comes by at CBP. That's ideology.

And it's ideology when we say that Aiken should have taken less to play, and it's ideology when we apologize for the Astros' front office for being "smart" or "thrifty" or "efficient." But it's also ideology to complain about the Astros tanking, as if their profit-grab is any more or less troubling than any other major league team's. One need not reject capitalist exchange to get to this point -- though it helps -- but the only honest reaction to such a bald managing of assets is to give the assets names and faces and feelings. The tragedy of the Aiken deal, then, is not the 2014 rebuilding hitch. It's the fact that three baseball players who were ready to begin their careers are forced into a different path because they were considered assets, risks, and gambles. This is the toll of fetishizing the young, low-cost, and non-leveraged talent we all seem to crave: when it wants to be paid, things go wrong.

So where do we end up? We won't be able to break this love of baseball, nor perhaps should we, but we should not be totally blind to its flaws. Shame on MLB for allowing the Astros to behave this way. Shame on the MLBPA for giving veterans leverage while leaving young players out to dry. Shame on the Astros for attempting to out-flank a high school senior at the bargaining table.

And shame on us if we forget all of this come July, 2015.