What happened to Brady Aiken may have been an unforeseeable turn of events, but it wasn't unprecedented for Jeff Luhnow. He went through a very similar situation in 2009.
In 2009 16-year old Wagner Mateo was a highly-touted and highly-sought after lefty outfielder from the Dominican Republic. He was a finalist in the Bo Jackson Five-Tool Championship at the World Wood Bat Association World Championship in 2009. He played centerfield, had "excellent bat speed, good leverage, and outstanding balance." He and Miguel Angel Sano were considered the top two international prospects heading into the July 2 signing date.
As early as May 2009, the Cardinals - who had scouted Mateo since 2007 - were negotiating with Mateo and his advisers with a price tag thought to be over $4m with the Dodgers and Giants also vying for his services. On July 2, 2009 the Cardinals and Mateo agreed to a $3.1m signing bonus, contingent on a physical, after the Giants backed off at the last minute on a $3.5m offer. At the time it was the 2nd-largest bonus ever given to a Latin American amateur player, and broke the Cardinals' record for an international signing by almost $2m. St. Louis GM John Mozeliak said that Mateo would have been a Top-10 pick had he been eligible for the draft.
Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals farm director and vice president, presented Mateo with a Cardinals jersey - a move Derrick Goold called "a symbolic gesture that the organization had just taken its boldest move yet into the realm of international player acquisition. Luhnow thanked the Cardinals ownership in a press release for "providing the resources for us to compete for the top international talent."
The deal was pending a physical, of course, and the Cardinals had 90 days to finalize the contract. On September 18, ESPN.com's Jorge Arangure Jr reported that Mateo was having vision issues that "may affect his contract status" with the Cardinals. Luhnow declined comment, but did say - though not specifically about Mateo - that, while the contract had been signed, they could still change his contract because "there are rules that MLB sets up in regards to pre-existing conditions."
Mateo's agent, Edgar Mercedes, blamed the issues on faulty contact lenses. "It's not a problem. He has contact lenses that gave him an infection that affected his cornea. He used contact lenses that weren't the correct size for his eyeballs."
During the physical, St. Louis doctors told the Cardinals of a possible issue with Mateo's right eye. He saw specialists, but as Jeff Passan noted, "definitive answers were elusive." On September 22nd, 2009 - about a week and a half before the deadilne - the Cardinals voided Mateo's contract.
Mozeliak: "We did our due diligence and we concluded that he had a pre-existing injury and he is also currently dealing with another injury. Having both those issues out there, we realized it was in the best interest of the club to void the contract...Just gathering all the information, we felt we were at a point where there was nothing that was going to change the outcome of this...Obviously, we were excited to sign one of the top players down there. But we also have to be prudent and make sure he goes through the process." Mozeliak did not specify what the two injuries were, but said they were related.
Joe Strauss wrote at the time that the Cardinals "flew Mateo and his agent to St. Louis in late July for a meet-and-greet with St. Louis media. Luhnow boasted that the organization's top scouts had personally watched Mateo, either at the team's spring training headquarters or in the Dominican. Before speaking to media - with the fluent Luhnow serving as interpreter - the strapping outfielder took batting practice next to his idol, Dominican-born Albert Pujols...that was the day the Cardinals learned that Mateo wore corrective lenses and that without them he could not read past the 'E' on the eye chart. Mateo was found to possess 20/200 vision. Even with contact lenses, Mateo's vision was 20/30."
Edgar Mercedes - Mateo's agent - said his eye was "the same (in September) as it was when the Cardinals worked him out." Mercedes also added that agent Adam Katz was considering filing a grievance on Mateo's behalf against the Cardinals, saying that Mateo's vision had been 20/30 ever since the Cardinals started getting serious back in March 2009. "Go ahead and find a guy with 20/20 vision. He's not going to hit better than him...Now it's going to be tough. It's brutal. Now they're going to say he's hindered. No. He's not. He can play."
Passan: "Wagner Mateo will swing a bat and catch balls and hope that his eye gets better. And he'll never, ever forget the day the St. Louis Cardinals called him defective and kept the millions. Because who could?"
Mateo told the press, "At one point I felt bad because St. Louis didn't even call me to talk about what was happening. They only sent me a letter, but I am working hard and trust that I can sign again."
Arangure: "Certainly, the Cardinals' efforts to be players in Latin America will take an immediate hit. Money talks in Latin America, and the Cardinals' reluctance to finalize the deal with Mateo may cost them respect among Latin American trainers...What may be most troublesome for St. Louis, though, is its frayed relationship with Mercedes...If the Cardinals can't repair their relationship with Mercedes, they might be shut out of some of the top players on the market."
Meanwhile, Mateo was once again available. The Giants, who were involved in the July 2 bidding, had spent most of their international allotment and were coming off the news that Angel Villalona, to whom the Giants had given $2.1m, was charged with murder. But "plenty of teams" were sizing up Mateo with St. Louis' actions in mind.
After workouts for a number of teams, the Diamondbacks ultimately signed Mateo in May 2010 for $512,000. And ultimately, the story hasn't turned out so well for Mateo. In his rookie season, he hit .257/.359/.401 in 67 games with 22 of his 61 hits going for extra-bases as a 17-year old. In 2011, he played in 54 games and posted a .687 OPS. Then in 2012, between Low-A and High-A, a .539 OPS. Mateo only played in 21 games in 2013, and last month the Diamondbacks announced that he would begin the conversion to pitching for Rookie-League Missoula.
Did it work out for the Cardinals? Sure, they didn't spend $3.1m on what we now know is a conversion project, an effort to salvage a career. Will the same be said for the Luhnow, the Astros, or Brady Aiken? Insert your cliche about time telling the whole story, but the Aiken situation - while unexpected - wasn't unprecedented for Jeff Luhnow.