Sources: MLB considering a draft combine to assess players' health

Jeff Passan

Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association expect to discuss the idea of a draft combine in upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations, hoping access to amateur players’ medical information will help avoid the complicated situation that unfolded with the No. 1 pick in 2014, major league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The tortuous case of Brady Aiken – chosen by the Houston Astros first overall, unsigned after a dispute over his ulnar collateral ligament and ultimately another Tommy John casualty after surgery Wednesday – spurred both Major League Baseball and the players’ association to consider the benefits and detriments of a potential system.

Brady Aiken (MLB.com)
Brady Aiken (MLB.com)
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Exactly how it would look stirs wide debate and will be a heated point in negotiations, which are expected to begin in earnest toward the end of this year with eyes on a new CBA before the current one expires on December 1, 2016. One source outlined a scenario in which a pre-determined number of elite players – perhaps the best 150 as determined by the MLB Scouting Bureau – undergo MRIs and take other tests before being deemed healthy by a league- and union-approved panel of physicians running a certification system. Others envision a wide-ranging combine that could include physical tests such as the 60-yard dash, radar-tested throwing speed and, for pitchers, bullpen sessions, along with MRI results that get distributed to every team.

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While the latter is ideal for teams that want to avoid another Aiken-type scenario and consult with their own doctors, fear on the players’ side is palpable and understandable: Giving every team unfettered access to a player’s records invites scrutiny and could have significant effects on his future.

Using a panel of well-regarded doctors seems the likeliest compromise and one with significant benefits beyond ensuring teams and players don’t find themselves in a situation like that of the Astros and Aiken, where Houston reportedly doubted the long-term viability of Aiken’s UCL, halved its initial offer and eventually saw him turn down $5 million.

In baseball’s battle against arm injuries, information is king – and adding a multi-year sample of amateur arms into its database could allow the league and its partners to study a grouping of players from before careers begin to the end. The more data the league has, the likelier its chance to pinpoint causes of UCL injuries and implement programs to cut down on them.

Preventing another case like Aiken’s, which conceivably could have been avoided with a predraft MRI examination, would be the combine’s imperative, particularly with the number of arm injuries in young pitchers. Aiken is now the third pick among the top 18 in last year’s draft to undergo a UCL replacement.

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While a combine isn’t nearly as large a priority for MLB as an international draft – a divisive issue that is a priority of new commissioner Rob Manfred despite significant logistical issues and vehement disapproval in Latin American countries – it has broad support among teams. Enough player agents agree with the premise to make it a strong possibility, though skeptics exist for more reasons than using medical information as a negotiating weapon.

An international draft remains a priority for Rob Manfred. (AP)
An international draft remains a priority for Rob Manfred. (AP)

One macro issue: The timing is no good. Currently, the draft takes place in early June during the College World Series, eliminating the possibility of testing every elite amateur. Peter Gammons reported MLB was considering pushing the draft back to July, which would coincide with the international free agent signing date of July 2, but that would force an even more abbreviated year for minor league short-season teams.

Another potential problem: NCAA involvement. With the likelihood that MLB pays for players to attend any combine and gives them treatment, the league would need to hash out an agreement with the NCAA in case a drafted player opts to attend college. The NCAA already enforces a draconian agent policy; the same could apply to something seen as an extra benefit. Just how much the player would need to repay MLB would be the issue.

Smaller concerns include the leaking of medical information, as seen throughout the NFL combine, whether it’s with injuries, positive drug tests or Wonderlic scores. And should MLB push an NFL-like combine, with skills tests to be televised, there is the issue of promoting the same max-effort culture seen on the showcase circuit and believed by many in the league to be one of the culprits of arm injuries.

Walking out with a clean bill of health, on the other hand, could enhance a player’s draft stock. And if the league believes in the idea of full medical records for all and is willing to sacrifice at the bargaining table to get them, the benefits for players could bring some balance to the fears: By rewarding a clean MRI, the league would be building an incentive for players to stay healthy by prioritizing not overthrowing and emphasizing mechanical efficiency at the amateur level.

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