In mid-May, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow suggested that first baseman Jonathan Singleton was “on deck” for a call-up. On Tuesday, the 22-year-old will finally step up to the plate, both figuratively and literally.
The Houston Astros made baseball history Monday by signing Singleton to a five-year extension that includes $10 million in guaranteed money, as reported by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. The contract also includes three club options that could push his total earnings to $35 million.
According to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Singleton will earn $9.5 million in base salary over the five guaranteed years of the contract, and he stands to receive $500,000 should the Astros decline his first option. Additionally, per Crasnick, Singleton’s three option years carry a value of $20 million, while he is due an additional $5 million in bonuses and awards.
The deal is the first for a player without a lick of major league experience, as Singleton will now be under contract through his age-29 season. The Astros approached rookie George Springer with a similar deal last month before his promotion to the major leagues, but the outfielder declined because he believed that it would limit his future earning potential.
Along the same lines, the Pirates attempted to lock up top prospect Gregory Polanco with a team-friendly extension in the wake of the proposed Springer contract. However, the 22-year-old outfielder turned down the offer for the same reasons.
Yet while Springer and Polanco have raced through the minor leagues and are generally regarded as potential All-Star-caliber talents, Singleton is a much different type of player as a first base-only prospect with all value tied to his bat. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that the Astros are off base in offering the 22-year-old a lucrative pre-MLB extension.
Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the eighth round of the 2009 draft out of a California high school, Singleton spent the first two-and-a-half years of his career in the team’s farm system, reaching High-A Clearwater as a 19-year-old in 2011.
However, the Phillies opted to deal the then teenager to Houston at the 2011 trade deadline as part of a package for Hunter Pence. The following year—his first full season as a member of the Astros—Singleton emerged as one of the sport’s top first base prospects, as he batted .284/.396/.497 with 27 doubles, 21 home runs, 79 RBI and a 131-to-88 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 555 plate appearances for Double-A Corpus Christi.
Ranked as baseball’s No. 67 overall prospect headed into the 2013 season and seemingly on the fast track to the major leagues, Singleton was slapped with a 50-game suspension after a second positive test for a drug of abuse. He eventually told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) during this year's spring training that he’s long battled an addiction to marijuana.
Singleton struggled to find his power stroke after returning from the suspension, as he made brief stops at Low-A Quad Cities and Double-A Corpus Christi before a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where, in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, he posted a pedestrian .687 OPS with six home runs and 89 strikeouts in 294 plate appearances. Between all three levels, he batted .230/.351/.401 with 29 extra-base hits (11 home runs) and a 110-59 K/BB ratio in 367 plate appearances.
However, Singleton’s long-ball struggles finally came to an end during the offseason, as the left-handed hitter launched nine home runs in 129 at-bats while playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Singleton has looked more like his 2012 self in his return to Triple-A Oklahoma this season, and his numbers support the claim: .267/.397/.544 with 10 doubles, 14 home runs, 43 RBI and a 52-to-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 239 plate appearances.
The left-handed batter’s hit tool projects to be at an above-average level of maturity, with the potential to post a batting average in the neighborhood of .270 on an annual basis. With a career .388 on-base percentage over six minor league seasons, Singleton is expected to reach base at a similar clip in the majors, as he demonstrates a legitimate feel for the strike zone, works deep counts and obviously doesn’t shy away from taking a walk.
That being said, the 22-year-old also whiffs his fair share, evidenced by his 25.2 percent strikeout rate dating back to the 2012 season. However, a high level of swing-and-miss is fairly standard early in the careers of most young power hitters and stands to come down as he gains experience against big league-caliber arms.
Singleton possesses plus (almost plus-plus) bat speed thanks to quick-twitch wrists and forearms and has shown a natural up-the-middle approach in previous years. In general, he’s a physically strong player with the plus raw power and selectively aggressive approach to put up multiple seasons with 20-25 home runs. Yet his power frequency at the highest level will depend on his capacity to makes improvements and adjustments moving forward.
If there’s one knock on the 22-year-old’s offensive profile, it’s that he’s traditionally struggled against same-side pitching. In 2012, Singleton batted .232/.307/.416 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 140 plate appearances against southpaws. Last year, he struggled to the tune of a .182/.317/.293 batting line with just two home runs and 48 strikeouts in 120 plate appearances.
This season, however, has been a different story. In 77 plate appearances against left-handed pitching at Triple-A Oklahoma City, Singleton had posted a drastically improved .309/.390/.529 batting line to go along with four home runs and only 15 strikeouts. The fact that he’s now receiving a promotion suggests the Astros were waiting for him to clear the specific developmental hurdle.
Impact of the Extension
With Singleton set to debut for the Astros on Tuesday, it’s seemingly only a matter of time until more teams approach their elite prospects with extensions prior to reaching the major leagues.
Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish was quick to report an agent’s take on the Singleton extension:
Though it may sound greedy, the agent with whom Cotillo spoke is dead on regarding the fallout of Singleton’s deal; in theory, prospects facing similar situations could now have their future earnings limited by pre-MLB extensions, as it offers them a direct path to the major leagues while putting guaranteed cash in their pockets.
The extension further highlights the emerging trend of clubs attempting to lock up what they perceive to be “franchise players” before reaching the major leagues. Prior to news of the proposed extensions last month to both Springer and Polanco, teams such as the Braves had made headlines during the offseason and spring by locking up Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran with potentially team friendly, long-term contracts.
However, while the Braves seemed to be ahead of the curve with those specific deals, the Astros have now taken the idea of extending their young players to an entirely new level.
Unlike Springer and Polanco, two five-tool players with potential All-Star upside, Singleton comes with greater risk as a first base-only prospect with all future value tied to his bat—not to mention his previous off-the-field issues. Still, his strong track record in the minor leagues—.279/.388/.466 with 111 doubles, 75 bombs, 318 RBI and strikeout and walk rates of 22.3 percent and 15 percent, respectively—provides the organization with a realistic idea of what to expect from the 22-year-old at the major league level.
"Our coaches and our scouts believe that he will be successful against both sides and it will allow him to play every day, and defensively he's a very good first baseman," Luhnow said via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. "He's got power, so he should be a guy that [manager] Bo [Porter] should be happy to write him in the lineup every day."
The Astros' investment in Singleton’s long-term potential as a middle-of-the-order run producer should keep them out of the market for a first baseman for at least the next half-decade—also improving their current lack of production at the position—and provide them with the financial flexibility to spend elsewhere when the time comes.
And if Singleton comes remotely close to reaching his offensive ceiling, then the unprecedented extension should emerge as an absolute bargain within a few years.