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Are the Astros heartless, unfeeling robots?

The Brady Aiken mess has alerted the world that baseball teams might value baseball players as assets with a fixed value. We investigate this shocking claim.

Rich Schultz

The post-negotiation negotiations between the Astros and first-overall pick Brady Aiken are a mess. If you want the sordid details, The Crawfish Boxes has been doing great work collecting the details.

Short version: The Astros and Aiken came to a below-slot agreement for $6.5 million, but a post-contract physical revealed abnormalities in his elbow. ("Hey, there's a ligament in here! Those things are awful.") The Astros asked to revise the contract and lower the bonus down to $5 million, which would allow them to pay more money to other draft picks. That might be a silver lining in something they weren't expecting, or it might be a craven strategy.

What piques my interest are quotes like this, from the San Diego Union-Tribune:

"(The Astros) are analytical people," said an industry source. "They see players as assets."

This is a common criticism of the new Astros regime, that they're heartless robots who think nothing of reducing a player's entire worth to a single number. They answered that criticism in this SI piece ...

Adds Mejdal, "We realize these are human beings, not widgets. As far as assigning a number to a person—well, I assume you get a salary? Do you feel dehumanized because your boss has put a number on you?"

... but criticisms keep coming, especially after the Aiken story. Somehow, the Astros are different for the way they're handling things. I had three thoughts on this:

1. Nearly every business reduces their employees' worth down to a single number

Mejdal's right. The number is usually called a salary. They have them in baseball, too. This point is almost self-evident, so there's no use writing a manifesto, but this news is relevant.

The Astros deciding on an analytical system to turn employee contributions into success that pays for more employee contributions to turn into success is just about the biggest dog-licks-man story there is in baseball.

2. Every team sees their players as widgets

Every team. Here's the draft room of the Red Sox this year:


Behind the redacting blurs? Names. Nothing but names. Ranked names, listed in order of their potential worth. High school kids with proms and chemistry classes and dreams of making the big leagues, ranked below other high school kids because their fastballs aren't quite 60-potential pitches. Kids who come from wealth, kids who come from poverty. Kids who would donate their bone marrow to save a friend, ranked below kids who still pull the wings off flies when they're waiting for their iPad to charge.

When teams stop seeing players as at-will employees, things can get messy. When Pete Rose managed, he didn't see all of his players as widgets. He saw players like Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, and best friend Pete Rose, as companions. He kept playing them out of ... misguided loyalty? Unwavering belief that things never change? But when owners and GMs lose the ability to treat players as fuses in a grass-and-dirt fuse box, it isn't pretty.

Every team has their own secret sauce when it comes to balancing clubhouse benefit to on-field production. But they all err on the side of the latter. All of them. The Astros have numbers, but so do scouts. And if numbers don't exist, they still exist. They're just unspoken valuations that teams give every player.

3. You're just as bad

You. Guilty. Shame on you. If you've thought of a trade rumor for more than a second, if you've come up with your own trade proposal, if you've wished a player would move on to make room for a hot, new prospect, you're part of the fascist, widget-loving regime, too.

Right now, there are 39 different people around the world typing a bad trade idea for Jose Altuve into a forum somewhere. He's the single identifiable veteran on a bad team, which means he's the designated "Are you gonna eat that?" player for everyone else to rosterbate over. The trade proposals are a combination of prospects overrated by fans combined with prospects wildly overrated by fans, with just a touch of quantity over quality.

Those are human beings, you monsters.

I'm as guilty, of course. I've mocked and mocked and mocked trades until my cuticles bled. Here's one that suggests the Blue Jays might have been willing to trade Noah Syndergaard for a starting pitcher, which is ludicrous in retrospect. I'm currently spending 40 percent of my work day wondering what the Giants could get for Kyle Crick. You know, the guy who was in high school a couple years ago, who passed up the chance to go to college, who's spent the last three years riding busses with his new friends, who's learned to become an adult with the help of the only organization he's ever known?

Here. Enjoy the Rays. I think they're normal. Their Double-A team is in ... Montgomery. Here's a hat with a biscuit on it. See you.

But we ignore this. We have to. We tell ourselves they're well-paid and shouldn't complain (even though some of the minor leaguers traded would give a toe to make Starbucks-barista money), and we tell ourselves that it's part of the game. It's still really, really weird and surreal to think about. They're all widgets. In the winter, we'll have opinions on where people decide to work. We'll have opinions on what they'll be paid, but only because it limits the team's ability to give that money to other players.

They're faceless, moveable drones, primarily to fans. The teams actually get to interact with the players. The managers are the ones who see the looks on their faces when they're traded or released. It's hard for them, but it's a business, so they keep assigning value to humans. Like everyone else.

Now, I don't know if the Astros are handling the Aiken deal on the level. That would take eight more years of school and a functioning brain for me to figure out. But as for the idea that they're guilty of treating players like interchangeable cogs in a giant baseball machine? Of course they do. We all do.

Blaming it on their decision to use a quick-and-dirty number to help determine a player's worth? It's saberphobic, nothing else. It doesn't take 80-grade baseball smarts to see that.