Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Pedro Martinez called Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman “the perfect face of baseball.” The former number-two overall pick, described by Martinez as a “mini Mike Trout,” is one of those guys whose heart, hustle, and swagger outweigh his size and power. And the Astros almost never had him.
Bregman has been Houston’s best and most consistent player in the 2018 season. The 24-year-old is hitting .297/.400/.559 with 30 home runs, 97 RBIs, a major league-leading 49 doubles, and more walks (84) than strikeouts (73). All of those stats are career highs, a wondrous season from an emerging star that has seen him accumulate 7.0 Baseball-Reference WAR and the 2018 All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award.
With Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer all dealing with injuries and experiencing the effects of those ailments on the diamond, Bregman has kept the American League West-leading Astros afloat with his fearsome plate presence, scintillating defense at third base, and all-around infectious energy (I mean, the dugout stare is pretty exemplary).
But again, this was an all-around MVP-caliber package the likes of which Houston nearly missed out on. The story goes back to the end of the 2013 season. The Astros finished with an incredibly terrible 51-111 (.315) record, ending the final season of a three-year stretch with 324 combined losses with their worst record in franchise history. An abysmal 2013 campaign earned them the top pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, where they selected prized high school southpaw Brady Aiken.The Houston @Astros fell backwards into a rising superstar, third baseman @ABREG_1. Here's how the flashy, youthful righty ended up in the Bayou City.Click To Tweet
Aiken, an elusive and coveted left-hander from California, drew comparisons to Andy Pettitte and Clayton Kershaw on his way to being picked as the one-one. He was ranked by ESPN’s Keith Law as the top-ranked 2014 draft prospect, and the Astros made no mistake in snagging the lefty. However, complications arose with the health of the then 17-year-old star, most notably a case of elbow inflammation. The Astros lowered the customary signing bonus for a high-profile draft pick from $6.5 million (a deal on which the parties had agreed upon) to $5 million after Aiken’s post-draft physical revealed the ailments in his throwing arm.
The contract dispute from the health issues led to the two sides parting ways before the Astros could sign Aiken by the July 18 signing deadline. Aiken is the only number-one overall pick since 1983 to be left unsigned by the original draft team. Aiken would enroll in Florida’s IMG Academy in order to remain eligible for — and re-enter — the draft, where the Cleveland Indians took him at 17th overall in 2015. Before the June player draft, though, Aiken was sidelined after Tommy John surgery three months prior.
It was a big hit for a promising young pitcher, and in a way, a dodged bullet for Houston. Aiken is still kicking it with the Tribe, but he has struggled in his minor-league career, posting an ERA over five and a 7-18 record in levels as high as Low-A. All in all, it was an immense embarrassment for Houston, and a punch in the face for a franchise already beaten and battered with them, even if Aiken doesn’t pan out.
To gamble on an injured pitcher, then to never sign him, was a bad look for one of the most puzzling franchises in sports at the time. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said, “I do feel genuine empathy for the players involved. It was bad luck all around. I understand that from a fan’s perspective, we got nothing.” It was a black eye.
But all black eyes fade. Thanks to a rule instituted beforehand, and a very weird, somewhat complicated set of draft rule procedures that followed, the Astros netted a compensation pick for failing to reach an agreement on a contract with Aiken, earning the number-two overall selection in the 2015 draft that followed the 2014 affair.
In MLB’s Rule 4 compensation draft rules, it states: “If a player selected prior to the 3rd round of the Rule 4 Draft does not sign, the club receives an extra compensation selection in the next Rule 4 Draft, one slot lower than where the club selected the previous season.”
The consensus top two prospects for the 2015 draft were a pair of college shortstops, competing head-to-head in the same NCAA athletic conference: Vanderbilt star Dansby Swanson, and LSU anchor Bregman. Bregman had beaten Swanson out for first-team All-SEC honors in 2015, but a run to a College World Series title the year prior and a .348 batting average put Swanson over the top, and the Arizona Diamondbacks — awarded the top pick by virtue of their 64-98 record in 2014 — selected the Vanderbilt infielder.
The Diamondbacks swiftly traded Swanson and Ender Inciarte to the Atlanta Braves for Shelby Miller, but that is a different story with arguably worse of a deal than the Aiken affair, which is amazing to think about. Nonetheless, the Astros lucked into Bregman, who has been considerably better than Swanson in almost every offensive stat category during their careers.
But this isn’t even about Bregman vs. Swanson, or Bregman vs. Aiken; this is about an uncommon set of unusual circumstances that allowed Houston to fall into a burgeoning superstar third baseman. Bregman has been the Astros’ best player in a season littered with injuries, inconsistencies, and a surprising challenge from the Oakland Athletics for the top spot in the American League West.
If they didn’t have the young right-hander, the Astros might be dead in the water right now. And they almost never had Alex Bregman at all.