Brady Aiken Rejected $5M and Got Hurt; Now Past No. 1 Pick Fights for MLB Future

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 30, 2017

Houston Astros representatives Adam Everett, left, and Paul Ricciarini discuss who they are going to draft with the first pick in the 2014 MLB baseball draft Thursday, June 5, 2014, in Secaucus, N.J. The Astros chose Brady Aiken from San Diego, California. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Photo courtesy of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — No spring training backdrop is as dramatic as that of the Cleveland Indians, where dozens of tired, abandoned jets are parked on the desert floor in their final resting place. Pilots refer to these acres of dusty real estate as "The Boneyard." Under a scorching sun, the aircrafts await their turn to be dismantled.

On a patch of green grass across the street, a small group of Indians minor leaguers finish another day of workouts by sprinting some 40 yards or so toward those jets. Then, back again. Sweat glistens. Smiles gleam. Another sprint, and then another. And somewhere in this anonymous pack is only the third high school pitcher in history to be selected No. 1 overall in baseball's annual amateur draft.

Brady Aiken, the left-hander whose career has been grounded since Houston drafted and then squeezed him in 2014, is emerging tall from a three-year span in which it appeared as if his baseball life might've been in line to be dismantled right along with all those dead jets.

"It makes for a pretty cool sunrise," he says, enthusiasm and wonder again filling his voice as he gazes toward the airplane graveyard. 

"Spring training's awesome," he continues. "Everyone's out here, you're in a big group together, having a good time."

It was not easy to pick Aiken out of this pack and, for now, that's exactly the way he prefers it. He did his time in the eye of the hurricane. He lived the line from the Bruce Springsteen song, the one that wonders: Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?

Yes, today is all about these blessed sunrises, not sunsets. The negotiations with Houston that dissolved into a smoldering wreckage in 2014, the Tommy John ligament-transfer surgery he underwent two years ago on March 25, the rehabilitation, the waiting, the wondering, the grinding, the first few tentative steps in his comeback late last summer...those are the sunsets, so many of them, and good riddance to all.

Now, there are no more restrictions. There are no more negotiations.

There is only what's up ahead in the distance.

The jet graveyard that serves as a backdrop for the Indians' spring training complex is a metaphorical setting for the detour Brady Aiken's career took.
The jet graveyard that serves as a backdrop for the Indians' spring training complex is a metaphorical setting for the detour Brady Aiken's career took.Scott Miller/Bleacher Report

"This is probably the happiest that he's been, the best place he's been in physically and mentally ever in his life," Jim Aiken, Brady's father, says. "The Indians are such a great organization. They've been so good to him."

The Indians caught him on the rebound, selecting him in the first round, 17th overall, in the 2015 draft. His arm was healing at the time. No matter. Cleveland believed enough to give him a $2.5 million signing bonus and a ticket to their spring training complex to rehab under the club's watch and with its help.

For that, Aiken will be forever grateful.

"That stuff that happened in the past is obviously not something we wish would have happened," he tells B/R in his first lengthy sit-down interview since the Indians drafted him. "But we're in a really good position now.

"I'm in a really good organization and, although I did have surgery, I rehabbed with a fantastic team that is really good with rehabbing pitchers. That's the most important thing for me, making sure that my career is going in the right direction. Which it is."

He is still a baby, only 20, though given the wringer he's been through, he must be about 50 in dog years. This idea elicits a chuckle. Why not? He's trained himself to look for the bright side.

"I learned a lot in the process and definitely have grown in the mental side of the game in ways that I wouldn't have if I was just playing every day," he says. "You learn so much patience. Being in rehab with some guys who were down here, big leaguers, it was pretty cool."

One of them was Indians starter Josh Tomlin, who was the first person to say hello to Aiken at the Indians' Arizona facility two summers ago. Tomlin, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, was rehabbing from shoulder surgery at the time.

"I knew who he was, and I knew the path he had the year before," Tomlin says. "So I figured I'd try to make it as easy as I could for him."

It was before his senior season in high school that the 6'4" left-hander with the Hollywood looks and the sensational stuff made a bold proclamation to his family and advisors, the agent Casey Close and his crew: His goal was to be picked first in the draft that summer. Not just the first round. First overall.

Aiken knew Carlos Rodon, the North Carolina State left-hander who wound up being picked third overall by the Chicago White Sox, was being talked about as a potential No. 1. He was eyeing rival high school star Tyler Kolek, who would go No. 2 overall to the Marlins.

So he ran. He threw. He lifted. He worked his tail off, and on June 5, 2014, the Astros cooperated. They picked him first.

It was the last time they would cooperate.

They offered a $6.5 million signing bonus (less than the $7.9 million MLB had slotted for the No. 1 overall pick), then pulled it back when medical exams reportedly revealed a small abnormality in Aiken's elbow near his ligament.

Weeks went by before the Astros made another offer, this one lowered to $3.1 million and then, just before the signing deadline, $5 million. Aiken and his camp balked, and the Astros became the first team to fail to sign its No. 1 pick in 31 years, since the Minnesota Twins and Tim Belcher were at odds in 1983.

Caught in the crossfire was pitcher Jacob Nix, who was selected in the fifth round by the Astros and offered a $1.5 million signing bonus, way higher than the $370,500 that MLB recommended for the 136th overall pick. Nix, too, went unsigned because when the Aiken negotiations blew up, the Astros lost a portion of their allotted draft-pool money and were unable to sign Nix at the agreed price without incurring penalties. Like Aiken, Nix told the Astros to take a later, lower offer and shove it.

Longtime friends since pitching together for the United States 18-and-under national team when they were in high school, the two enrolled at IMG Academy, a boarding school and sports training facility in Bradenton, Florida. They were even roommates.

"What happened sucked, but we were having fun," Nix, now in San Diego's camp after the Padres selected him in the third round in '15 and gave him a $900,000 signing bonus, tells B/R. "We had a lot of fun at IMG. We joked around a lot, but we knew when to get serious and get our work done."

Then, in the first inning of his first game at IMG, on his 13th pitch, Aiken's elbow blew out.

"It was just one pitch, first inning, and it just kind of clicked a little bit," Aiken says. "I was like, 'Oh, man, that's kind of weird.' It didn't really hurt too bad. I just kept throwing, and it progressively got worse to the point where, yeah, this doesn't feel the greatest."

That night, Aiken, Nix and several others had planned to go to dinner. Instead, his elbow now remapping his future, Aiken stayed behind. Nix stopped at Cold Stone Creamery and picked up some mint chip ice cream.

"He was in his room and looked pretty down," Nix says. "So I was like, I'm going to bring this guy some ice cream." This is the part where the dream that became a lie turned into something worse.

"It happened so quick," Aiken says. "I flew out a couple of days later and got the surgery the next morning after. It was almost like a daze. Within 24-48 hours, I was done with surgery before I even knew it."

His elbow was fixed by Dr. David Altchek, the same surgeon who had reconstructed Indians starter Carlos Carrasco's elbow, in New York. Nix packed up his friend's belongings in Florida and shipped them to his home in San Diego. To Aiken, still, it was a shock that he even was in this position. Despite the warning flares the Astros reportedly saw on the medical reports, Aiken always had been healthy and expected to stay that way.

"I wasn't worried that anything was going to happen," he says of his thoughts after the Houston deal fell apart. "I was excited to get back on the mound and prove my point, prove that all the training I had done was good and everything that I'd prepared for was going to pay off." 

Despite absorbing arrows nationally from many who knew little about his situation, Aiken politely declines to discuss where things went sideways with the Astros. So does his father.

"Our story is going to stay within our family and our support staff," Jim Aiken says. "A lot of stuff that was said was very, very hurtful not only to Brady, but to our family. A lot of bad stuff was said, most of it not true."

As he healed from surgery, the family's tight circle closed ranks. Aiken regrouped with his father, his mother, Linda, sister Halle, Close and David O'Hagen, the local San Diego representative from Close's agency.

The rehab seemed endless. His first full calendar year in Cleveland's organization after the '15 draft, it was his full-time job.

"A lot of people don't understand how long you're throwing," he says. "From late August until, shoot, the end of October, it was 15 months or so of nonstop throwing."

He learned what everyone else who has been through rehab knows: Some days are good, some not so good. Some steps forward are bold, others are wobbly. You can't do too much, but you can't do too little, either. It's long. It's boring. It's painful. It's relentless.

All this when you're 19? The sun cannot set quickly enough on each day.

It wasn't until last June 20, exactly two years and 15 days after he had been the first overall pick in the country, when he finally pitched in a game for the first time, stepping onto the mound for the Indians' Instructional League team in Arizona. And over the next 10 weeks, those who sided with the Astros because Aiken had dared to snub them while standing on principle, got their short-term gratification: In nine games (eight starts) for the Indians' Arizona Rookie team, he went 0-4 with a 7.12 ERA. When Cleveland sent him to Low-A Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League near season's end, he went 2-1 with a 4.43 ERA in five starts.

Aiken, here pitching in a high school showcase game in 2013, struck out 260 batters in 160.2 innings while at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego.
Aiken, here pitching in a high school showcase game in 2013, struck out 260 batters in 160.2 innings while at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego.Area Code Baseball

It wasn't only the lackluster numbers, though. His fastball velocity last year was in the 89-91 mph range. In high school, he sat at 92-94 and touched 95, 96.

"I wasn't at my best, but I did have some games where I threw well," Aiken says. "My velocity was down a little bit, but I think that helped me out because I had to learn how to throw, learn how to pitch. I couldn't just go out there and blow fastballs by guys. I had to learn how to throw in to guys, throw out to guys, work my off-speed stuff in the right spot. That definitely helped me grow as a pitcher."

The Indians, of course, paid little attention to the velocity part of Aiken's first steps back. General manager Mike Chernoff, saying he has "no concerns whatsoever," notes the obvious: It is not unusual for a dip in velocity to occur at the end of a long rehabilitation process. More important than velocity issues, Chernoff says, is that young pitchers lose development time while they are sidelined. Which is why Aiken right now is perfectly happy to be away from the headlines and working in the shadows with the rest of the minor leaguers. He's playing catch-up.

"He is so strong, body-wise," Chernoff says. "As he builds up this spring, we're much more concerned with his delivery, making sure that's consistent.

"I think the big thing is, coming in this year is, he's no longer a rehab player. His mindset is, he can be more aggressive. It's been a long time for him. There can be some tentativeness."

For his entire life, Aiken had done everything by the book in attempting to preserve his arm. He observed pitch counts. Innings limits. And the fickleness of the pitching elbow still caught him.

"You always look back and wonder, could we have done anything differently and, honestly, no," he says. "Even in summer ball in high school, I was on a pitch count and innings limits.

"There were some frustrating times."

Glancing in the rearview mirror, though, is wasted energy. He knows he must live in the present, and he's gotten pretty good at that. Plus, the Indians are there to serve gentle reminders.

"It can be a challenge when the focus is on getting back to where you were," Chernoff says. "Getting back to where you were in high school is not good enough to get you to the major leagues. There's no prospect status anymore. It's not about potential."

The Indians had zero hesitation using their first-round pick on Aiken in '15 even though he was on ice at the time because they had done extensive background work on him a year earlier. Their medical people were confident they could bring him back to an elite level, and the club has faith that its performance coaches and mental skills coaches can ace the rest.

"Look, he had been through a lot," Chernoff says. "What was he, 18? I can't even imagine going through the ups and downs he went through.

"Right from the outset of the draft, we talked about, 'Here is what a plan could look like.' There was going to be anxiety. We tried to make him see it's a two-way street, see the resources we have.

"With what he had been through, he deserved that. In the end, he owns his own career. We want to help him build the career he wants to have."

Here in the shadow of the dead jets, the reconstruction of Brady Aiken is beginning to crank up to full speed. He throws a four-seam fastball, a two-seamer, a changeup and a curve, the two-seamer emerging from afterthought in high school to well polished now.

"I think the main thing is, last year, I was kind of shying away from a few pitches every once in awhile," says Aiken, who is expected to start the season with the Lake County (Ohio) Captains in the Class A Midwest League. "But now that I've had an offseason, it almost doesn't feel like I had surgery. Going into this season, I feel like a normal pitcher. No limitations, no restrictions on my arm. It feels good to be a normal player again."

It is a new normal. "Damaged" isn't so much the word Chernoff chooses to describe him as "resilient."

"Every player at some point faces adversity," Chernoff says. "Brady faced extreme adversity early, and the resiliency he had…those are the attributes that are going to help him get to the big leagues.

"It's how you overcome adversity that defines your career."

You can see it happening here one sunrise at a time, the dawn of each new day presenting Aiken with his latest opportunity to overcome and redefine, one healthy pitch at a time.

"There's no regret on my side," he says. "I know I didn't do anything wrong. No one can predict stuff like that to happen.

"I'm glad I'm where I am now, with a great organization and in a great position to start this year and start moving up."

              

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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