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Injury disclosures loom large for future MLB drafts

Jul 25, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT

Lucas Giolito AP AP

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.

  1. moogro - Jul 25, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    Anyone know why all players don’t get physicals before the draft? 30 doctors too many?

    • mondogarage - Jul 25, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      Because the player can only lose in that scenario. The risk pre-draft is all on the player, with no upside.

    • emdash01 - Jul 25, 2014 at 4:18 PM

      Think of the mechanics of how that would work. 1200 or so players are drafted every year. If teams were allowed to do physicals before the draft, each would want their own doctors and coaches to examine the player – we’ve seen teams having different opinions about pitcher health this year, with the Orioles and Rays disagreeing about Balfour; arm damage especially isn’t always that easy to diagnose and clear-cut. That’s a lot of traveling, medical exams and hassle that the players would have to pay themselves since I’m reasonably sure NCAA rules wouldn’t allow teams to play for that.

      And at least NFL and NBA prospects know that if they’re drafted, they’re likely to play at the highest level and make the league minimum. MLB players who are drafted have to spend at least a year and up to 6 making absolute peanuts in obscurity at the minor league level, and outside of the first 10 picks or so the odds are overwhelmingly against them making it at all. It’s not at all a reasonable comparison.

  2. doctorofsmuganomics - Jul 25, 2014 at 3:12 PM

    I suppose you could say that

  3. scotttheskeptic - Jul 25, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    As much as I hate the cattle show that is the NFL Draft Combine, it seems to me that the top 100 or so potential draft picks should be examined in a uniform fashion, with results available to all 30 teams.

  4. jss1330 - Jul 25, 2014 at 3:32 PM

    I thought the Nationals had exclusive rights to all pitchers with bad elbows

    • natstowngreg - Jul 25, 2014 at 4:23 PM

      It does seem like the Nats get the guys needing TJS, doesn’t it? Stephen Strasburg was considered by some a TJS risk because of his mechanics. Giolito fell from a possible #1 to #16 after spraining his UCL, then needed TJS. This year, Erick Fedde had TJS a couple of days before the draft, sliding until the Nats’ #18 pick. [Jordan Zimmermann also needed TJS eventually, but I don't recall him having any significant injury risk when he was drafted in Round 2.]

      Not just pitchers and their elbows. Anthony Rendon fell from a possible #1 due to injuries. The Nats already had a good 3B, but took the hitting potential at #6. Worked out nicely.

  5. unclemosesgreen - Jul 25, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    MLBPA filed a grievance for the affected players today.

    • jss1330 - Jul 25, 2014 at 4:17 PM

      The Astros infringing on their rights to screw draftees?

      • unclemosesgreen - Jul 25, 2014 at 4:46 PM

        Yep – that’s a union job.

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