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Injury disclosures loom large for future MLB drafts

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When the Houston Astros selected Brady Aiken with the first pick of the 2014 MLB draft, many viewed Aiken as the best prep pitcher available in the draft. The previous September saw the lefty lead USA Baseball’s 18-and-under national team to the 18U World Cup. Yet less than one week before the July 18 signing deadline, the Astros had not signed their top pick to the long-rumored $6.5 million signing bonus.

Aiken’s advisor, Casey Close, made his thoughts public through Ken Rosenthal, stating that they were “extremely disappointed that Major League Baseball is allowing the Astros to conduct business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the draft and the 29 other clubs who have followed those same rules.” The issue emerged that Aiken’s physical, which occurred after the Astros and Aiken agreed to a signing bonus, revealed a smaller than normal ulnar collateral ligament. The Astros thought the smaller UCL would increase the chances of having elbow injuries. Close noted that Aiken was asymptomatic, and was able to touch 97 mph with his fastball during his final start.

Prior to the deadline, the Astros raised their signing bonus offer to a rumored $5 million. Aiken declined, and appears likely to go to college. (It’s unclear if he’ll attend UCLA or go to a junior college so he will be eligible for the 2015 draft.)

Injuries often cause prospects to drop in the draft. Barret Loux, drafted sixth overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, agreed to a $2 million signing bonus, but was declared a free agent after failing his physical due; the Diamondbacks declined to offer him a contract. Another was Lucas Giolito, drafted in 2012.

He was viewed as a potential first overall pick, which would make him the first prep pitcher at No. 1 since Brien Taylor in 1991, and the first right-handed prep pitcher in the history of the draft. In March of 2012, just three months before the draft, Lucas took himself out of a game after feeling pain in his right elbow. Tests were preformed and it was determined that Lucas had a strained Ulnar Collateral Ligament. His UCL was not torn, meaning he would not need Tommy John surgery.

It was that potential injury that ties Giolito to Aiken and could have a ripple effect on future MLB drafts.

Giolito’s father, Rick, recently questioned an article on the Houston Chronicle’s website that stated that “teams don’t see MRIs before the draft.” He says his son’s experience says otherwise.

“All draft-eligible players are required to submit complete medical histories to Major League Baseball, which includes MRIs, X-Rays, etc., prior to the draft,” Rick Giolito says. “MLB is responsible for delivering copies of medical history to the individual teams. Lucas’ injury occurred prior to the MLB deadline for delivery of Draftee Medical Histories,” so the information provided including information regarding what was then determined to be a strained Ulnar Collateral Ligament.

The Washington Nationals drafted Lucas Giolito with the 16th overall pick. His father says no additional medical information was provided, nor were any medical tests performed between the draft and when the Nationals and Giolito reached an agreement for a reported $2.925 million signing bonus, which was $800,000 higher than the allotted slot value. The bonus was close to the maximum that Giolito could receive without the Nationals being forced for forfeit a future draft pick. And that’s when, Giolito says, teams can do a full physical exam.

“Lucas had the standard work-up for a pitcher,” he says.

After the physical is completed, the team’s front office reviews the results with their team doctor(s). Then the team makes the decision to sign a player whether he passes a physical or not. As noted by Rick Giolito, “it would be extremely difficult to pre-negotiate for every possible medical contingency,” but was unable to go into specifics regarding Lucas’ contract.

Lucas Giolito pitched two innings in August, and the pain he felt in March returned, necessitating Tommy John surgery. After missing approximately one year, he returned with aplomb in late 2013, and has shown flashes of brilliance in 2014, dominating the Low-A South Atlantic League for the Hagerstown Suns.

As elbow injuries become more prevalent in baseball, the issues caused by pre-existing injuries such as those experienced by Giolito and Loux could lead to more disagreements, such as the one between Aiken and the Astros that was played out on a public stage. The parties that experienced the most collateral damage were Jacob Nix (Houston’s 5th-round pick) and Mac Marshall (taken in the 21st), who reportedly agreed to above-slot agreements that were not executed due to the Astros’ and Aiken’s inability to reach an agreement.

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark has indicated that the MLBPA will look into the situation. But it’s clear this precedent set by MLB with Loux, coupled with the interest from MLBPA and the national media, could lead to a resolution that has ripple effects on the draft.