Blue Jays and Astros: A Trade Gamble Worth Taking?
By Jim Scott
Could the Jays and Astros match up on a first-base for pitching prospect deal?
The Houston Astros have a problem, of the “good problem” kind. They have three potentially scary-good young players vying for the first base job at the major league level: Tyler White, the AL Player of the Week for the first week in April; Jon Singleton, ranked the top 1B prospect in the majors by mlb.com in 2014; and A.J. Reed, currently the 11th ranked prospect by Baseball America (and the top 1B). They also have Matt Duffy (Pacific Coast League player of the year) and Evan Gattis (who led the ‘Stros with 27 HR in 2015) vying for 1B/DH at bats.
Definitely the right kind of problem to have. But still a problem.
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It has been suggested that the Astros would be interested in trading one of the three kids. The most likely candidate is Singleton. He has disappointed (albeit in a very small sample size of about a half an MLB season) at the major league level, and he signed a (then controversial) 5-year, $10-million deal which started in 2014. His 50-game suspension for marijuana use in 2013 also raised questions about his emotional (and intellectual?) makeup. And his strikeout rate of 37% in 2014 was the highest in baseball for players with 300+ ABs.
So why would the Jays even be interested?
Start with upside. John Sickels, writing about Singleton in 2014, said that
"I would not expect him to hit .300 against big league pitching, but he has the raw talent to be one of the best power hitters in baseball if he avoids sabotaging himself."
"Singleton is a big man with explosive bat speed, which is his main attraction. The bat that carried him up the chain and into the big leagues features big-time raw power that should translate to high home run totals down the line. He doesn’t have the best feel for hitting, but he recognizes the pitches he can and cannot hit and can work himself into hitter’s counts. Like most top hitting prospects, Singleton can demolish fastballs. However, major-league pitchers not only have quality off-speed and breaking pitches, but can locate them with precision, which will be a big test"
Then let’s talk about need. The Jays’ options at first base are limited, and uncertain. Justin Smoak is a good defender (though perhaps not as good as his reputation suggests – a 0.6 lifetime UZR/150 at 1B) but he has never been an MLB-level hitter. Chris Colabello? Don’t get me started. Edwin? Not really a full-time 1B any more, though perhaps a better part-time solution than people realize. Jose Bautista? Unproven at 1B (lifetime -8.3 UZR/150 at 1B) and by no means a lock to be a Blue Jay in 2017. And there is no clear long-term solution in the minors – players like Rowdy Tellez and Matt Dean have upside, but are still lottery tickets. So yes – the Jays could definitely find room for a high-upside, close-to-MLB-ready first base prospect.
The next question is price. Someone once said that there are no good stocks or bad stocks: only underpriced and overpriced ones. A high-risk, high-upside project like Singleton only makes sense at a reasonable acquisition cost. Fortunately, the remaining $4.5 million (including buyouts) on Jon’s contract, combined with the disillusionment of many Houston fans and writers, could reduce the asking price. One writer suggested that, at this point, Houston would only be looking for a low-tier pitching prospect with some upside if the acquiring team were prepared to assume the full salary obligation.
The bottom line
I am a big fan of taking a chance on players with high talent who, for various reasons, come with questions. Most gambles of this type do not pay off – think Joba Chamberlain, Johan Santana, Rafael Soriano – but when a team does win, the benefits can be huge. And I wonder if a trade of this type would send a message to Jose and Edwin that, while the Jays certainly want them back, they are working on backup plans?