After a 2014 season marred by misfortune, UCLA baseball might have just become the beneficiary of a long-awaited dose of good luck: Bruin commits and MLB draftees Brady Aiken and Jacob Nix failed to agree terms with the Houston Astros by the 2 p.m. signing deadline today. The pair of elite California high school pitchers now has the choice to either attend UCLA for at least the next three years or attend a junior college with the hopes of re-entering the MLB Draft in 2015.
The headliner among the pair is clearly Aiken, the San Diegan who was the first overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft by Houston. He is a high school left-hander who has drawn comparisons to Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels. According to draft expert Jim Callis of MLB.com, “The scouting report on Aiken before his senior season was that his athleticism and feel for pitching stood out as much as his pure stuff. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder usually pitched a lively fastball around 90 mph and backed it up with a low-70s curveball and changeup. [...] Aiken’s heater now operates at 92-94 mph and reaches 97, and he has maintained the life on the pitch and his ability to command it. His curve has added more power and depth as well, and his circle changeup has become more deceptive.”
Upon being drafted by the Astros, Aiken and the team quickly agreed to a deal including a $6.5 million signing bonus. However, the Astros found in a post-draft physical that Aiken had issues with his left elbow ligaments and, as a result, the Astros rescinded the original contract offer and attempted to low-ball Aiken by offering him a contract with a signing bonus just above $3 million.
An unintended consequence of the spiraling Aiken negotiations, though, has been the hardship for Jacob Nix, a 5th-round choice by those same Houston Astros. MLB.com’s scouting report of Nix describes him as work in progress with the tools to succeed: “The UCLA commit can light up the radar gun, touching as high as 96 mph, but the rest of his pitching game remains a work in progress. He shows some feel for a changeup, though he doesn’t need it all that much. His breaking ball is inconsistent and tends to be slurvy. Big and physical, there is projection to all of his stuff, with the chance of him having three Major League-average or better pitches when all is said and done.
But, as MLB.com’s Jim Callis explains, “A right-hander from Los Alamito High (Calif.), Nix agreed to a $1.5 million bonus within two weeks of the Draft. But now he’s caught in the crossfire, because if the Astros were to pay Nix $1.5 million and not sign Aiken, they would exceed their allotted bonus pool by more than 15 percent — and forfeit their next two first-round picks as a penalty under the Draft rules.” Astros GM Jeff Luhnow confirmed that a failure to sign Aiken would result in a failure to sign Nix as well.
Now that Aiken has refused to sign for the Astros by the signing deadline, both he and Nix are seemingly free to attend UCLA and pitch for a 2015 Bruin squad that was already touted as a favorite to reach Omaha before the potential (and unthinkable) arrival of two of the gems of its recruiting class.
However, a potential spanner has been thrown into the works by the moronic and potentially destructive comments by Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. Crane liberally used the term “agent” to describe Aiken’s advisor (and baseball agent) Casey Close. According to ridiculous NCAA regulations though, MLB draftees are unable to retain agents or use agents to negotiate with teams on their behalfs. They’re only allowed to use “advisors”. If a draftee uses an agent to negotiate terms, the player risks losing NCAA eligibility. The Houston Chronicle has a comprehensive rundown of the situation regarding Aiken’s potential eligibility issues.
It will be fascinating to see how things unfold over the next few weeks, but either way, John Savage’s already formidable team possibly stands to hit a totally unexpected jackpot should Aiken and Nix be deemed eligible and choose to enroll at UCLA.