- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Perception matters, which is why the chief justice of the Supreme Court has historically worked for unanimity in decisions, and why the loser in the presidential election gives a concession speech, to legitimize the process.
Perception is particularly important in business, when you are asking potential customers to buy your product, and buy into your product. Perception is why the St. Louis Cardinals will never substantively alter their timeless logo, and why the New York Yankees will always wear pinstripes.
But the power of perception is what the Houston Astros have ignored in their machinations, including those leading up to their failure to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken by Friday's deadline. The perception of their decisions -- in the eyes of some of their own players, players with other teams, agents and, most importantly, potential customers -- may take many years for them to overcome. Evan Drellich was right in what he wrote in late May: The Astros have an enormous perception problem.
The Astros have had an incredible opportunity, having picked at the top of the draft for three straight seasons, but time and again, they have been penny-wise and pound-foolish and damaged their brand along the way.
The Astros have their own self image, but they need to know that among players and agents, they are seen as a team that tried to strong-arm the best player in their organization, George Springer, into a team-friendly extension, and then punished Springer when he didn’t agree to a new deal by sending him to the minors, again. The fact that Springer has starred since being called up April 16 has only reinforced the perception among agents and some players that the Astros were more interested in manipulating Springer than they were about winning.
Mark Appel was at or near the top of a lot of draft boards in 2013, but some rival executives were surprised that the Astros chose to take him over third baseman Kris Bryant with the No. 1 overall pick. “Taking a position player means a lot less risk,” said one high-ranking executive.
Some decisions work out, and some don’t, but the timing of how this one is playing out could not be worse. Appel is struggling badly in the minors while Bryant is wrecking his way to the big leagues, averaging a home run every 10 at-bats, and the choice of Appel over Bryant has a chance to surpass Phil Nevin over Derek Jeter in Houston draft lore as the draft decision that turned into a disaster.
The Astros are widely viewed by rival executives as a team that tanked the 2013 season, seemingly designing a team for a degree of failure that only the 1962-65 New York Mets could rival. The Astros opened the year with a $20 million payroll, and then traded almost every player making more than $1 million. You’ve heard of too big to fail? Well, Houston had so little talent and so much inexperience that there was no chance the Astros could compete.
Not surprisingly, the team went 51-111, earning the Astros the first pick in the 2014 draft; and now, in spite of all that losing, and the summerlong string of wipeouts, they failed to sign Aiken.
Only Astros officials know for sure why they reduced their offer to Aiken, and they maintain they have done nothing wrong. The perception in a lot of corners -- including that of the players' association -- is that the Astros shifted their offers around in an effort to lock up three draft picks, and not just Aiken. Anybody with a paper and pencil can figure out that the scope of the attempted reduction for Aiken almost perfectly matches the money discussed with fifth-round pick Jacob Nix and 21st-round pick Mac Marshall.
The problem for the Astros -- the great miscalculation -- is built around the fact that widely respected and generally understated agent Casey Close is an adviser to both players. He knows when the proposals were altered, and by how much. He is well aware how Nix arrived with his family in Houston, prepared to sign, only to be told the agreement was null and void. The perception of that stinks. He can speak firsthand to both the Aiken and Nix families about how this played out.
It stands to reason that Aiken’s family would not take the calls of the Astros on Friday because of that perception -- about the Houston offers shifting from $6.5 million to $3.1 million to about $5 million. Or maybe the Astros couldn’t get the Aikens to take their phone calls because of how the Astros’ concern over Aiken’s ulnar collateral ligament leaked out, not long before published stories about Aiken’s college eligibility being in jeopardy. As one longtime agent said, “I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago.”
It may be that the Astros boxed themselves in, negotiating the signing bonus with Nix while assuming that eventually Aiken would capitulate and agree to their reduced terms. It’s possible that by the last hours, they weren’t in position to give Aiken the $6.5 million initially promised because that would have ended any chance of them revitalizing the Nix deal.
But in the end, the Astros had a $5 million-ish offer on the table to Aiken, a rollback of $1.5 million over the initial agreement, which tells us that while they still had concerns about Aiken’s medicals, the UCL issue was hardly a deal-breaker. At some moment in this process, the Astros should’ve stopped obsessing over the numbers and instead taken a step back and assessed the potential for damage to the perception of the organization if the worst-case scenario happened, that Aiken and Nix failed to sign.
This is because the fallout from that outcome could linger for years, hanging over the team like a radioactive cloud. For the sake of $1.5 million.
If the Astros could have navigated their way out of the Aiken mess somewhere along the way -- before their concerns about his medicals leaked out -- the savings in how they’re perceived, the protection of their brand, would’ve been worth a whole lot more than $1.5 million.
The surcharge for their recent actions is already in place, and figures to cost them even more going into the future. Last winter, Scott Kazmir -- a Houston native -- opted to sign a two-year deal with the Oakland Athletics instead of following up on the Astros’ overtures.