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TCB Debates the Case of A.J. Reed vs. Jon Singleton

Who is the Astros' first baseman of the future - Jon Singleton or A.J. Reed? Anthony and Jason debate the merits of each.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When I was a brand-new writer at The Crawfish Boxes, I had the pleasure of having a great conversation with CRPerry13 about the Martinii (J.D. and Fernando Martinez). Chris won both the argument itself and in life, as J.D. Martinez has gone on to be an All-Star with the Detroit Tigers, and Fernando is basically persona non grata in American baseball.

Recently, in our off-site conversation among the writers, Jason Marbach made an interesting comment about first base prospect A.J. Reed. That caught my interest, and I reached out to Jason to debate the merits of Reed and the incumbent Astros first baseman, Jon Singleton.

Below is the conversation that ensued:

* * *

From: Anthony Boyer
To: Jason Marbach

Hi Jason --

You made an interesting comment on the listserv earlier regarding A.J. Reed. Specifically:

Even if he's just a 115 wRC+ hitter in the bigs, it's better than anyone else we could throw out there.

That caught my attention, because I happen to be a fan of Jon Singleton as the Astros' first basemen of the future, so I wanted to raise the question: Assuming it can only be one of them, in your opinion, which of these two promising young first basemen is most likely to be a long-term contributor to the Houston Astros, Reed or Singleton?

Personally, I think Jon Singleton is the better candidate for the job. It's easy to look at Singleton's numbers in the majors and to feel somewhat sour on him; a bit of prospect fatigue is bound to sink in, but I think it's important to remember that Singleton is still just 23 years old and has just 415 big league plate appearances to his credit. Reed, of course, has none.

I'd like to point you to 2012, when Singleton was in Double-A. Compare his numbers there to Reed's (admittedly small sample) numbers so far in 2015 at the same level:

Singleton (age 20): .284/.396/.497, 15.9 BB%, 23.6 K%, .213 ISO, 148 wRC+

Reed (age 22): .298/.390/.538, 13.8 BB%, 23.6 K%, .240 ISO, 153 wRC+

Reed has, thus far, been very similar to Singleton in Double-A, with one notable exception: Singleton was two years younger when he hit the level. He walked more frequently than Reed, and struck out at the exact same rate.

There are two reasons I'm looking at Double-A rather than High-A, where Reed was far-and-away the better hitter. First, Singleton not only switched teams in the middle of his High-A season thanks to the Hunter Pence trade, but he was also playing out of position in left field (presumably because he was considered to be blocked by Ryan Howard) during that season. I think piling defensive adjustments, league adjustments, and everything else on top of him is a lot to ask of a young player. Second, the leap from High-A to Double-A is largely considered to be much more significant than any other leap in the minors. So when we're looking at how they've performed in the high minors, it seems more correct than looking at their performance in lower levels.

I also want to point you to this Fangraphs article from May 2014:

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow recently praised Singleton’s development, saying, "He’s got a lot of self-confidence right now, and he’s becoming a complete player. That’s really what gets me excited about him." Part of what Luhnow is talking about is Singleton’s improved production against lefties, but I’d imagine a significant part of that statement is in regards to his defensive abilities.

Coming into this year, it would have been hard to find anyone who viewed Singleton as anything more than a league-average defensive first baseman in the long run. Well, I’ll say it now: Singleton’s defense has improved to the point where I can see him being an above-average defender. His hands are much improved, he seems to have better range and, overall, he just looks really smooth in the field. That’s not something I used to say about him.

Singleton's defense is some kind of hit-and-miss at the major league level, mostly because he hasn't played enough for any of the normal statistics to stabilize. But I think that scouting report is pretty solid.

Now I want to turn your attention to this scouting profile on A.J. Reed from Baseball Prospectus:

Below-average at present; moves decently around the bag with some notable mobility given size; below-average lateral quickness, footwork is raw, slow into cross-over; range is limited, solid hands on balls he can reach, handles short-hops.

Now, I will be the first to admit that defense for a first baseman isn't much of anything to concern ourselves with, but when you take exceptionally-similar players, one of whom was putting up similar numbers despite being two years younger in the same level, and add a better defensive profile to that player, I think I have to say: Until A.J. Reed shows me that he can consistently out-hit Jon Singleton, he's got his work cut out for him in beating him out for the job.

I'll let you rebut.

* * *

From: Jason Marbach
To: Anthony Boyer

I am nothing if not cynical.  Which is why my positive outlooks and projections regarding prospects is baffling, even to me.  I wanted to lead with that little tidbit, because it plays its role for my stance in this conversation.  Naturally, I consider myself a realist…just like so many of those who commit treason consider themselves patriots, I suppose.  That’s what my prospect optimism is – traitorous to my cynicism.

My feelings regarding A.J. Reed don’t necessarily include his becoming a superstar.  I think he CAN become a superstar, but then, a 23 year old Jon Singleton could still become a superstar – as he’s long been projected to become – too.  As you captured in your quote when I was discussing A.J. Reed possibly becoming a 115 wRC+ player, I think he has an excellent (if not guaranteed) chance at becoming an above average first baseman in the Major Leagues.  I think Singleton could probably become that, too.  I just think A.J. Reed is more likely to hit his ceiling (which, despite its relative similarity to Singleton’s, still might not be as high as we’d all like) than Singleton is.  What follows is my reasoning.

There is a well-known school of thought about the bust rates of high school-drafted players and collegiate players.  Here’s an article comparing high school and collegiate players.

It’s generally accepted – though as yet not completely provable – that collegiate players are, by and large, safer picks who are more likely to find success in the major leagues, while high school players are generally higher-ceiling, lower-floor players.  The risk-reward factors are covered fairly well in the article above, but suffice to say it’s a reasonable statement to make that collegiate players are generally more reliable as projectable major league players than high schoolers.  Perhaps Jon Singleton, who was drafted 257th overall in the 8th round of the 2009 draft by the Phillies as an 18 year old high schooler, is one of the players who excels in the major leagues later, as has been implied to be the case with many high school players.  But A.J. Reed, who was drafted just last year in the 2014 draft by the Astros 42nd overall (first pick of the second round) and was converted from a pitcher who excelled on both sides of the ball to a pure first baseman, is a college graduate (read: probably more likely to hit his ceiling than a high school player) and a former Golden Spikes winner to boot.  As was pointed out in the listserv by Chris Perry, here is a list of former winners of the most prestigious award in all of College Baseball – all of whom ascended to the Major Leagues and most of whom (some of these players, like Zunino and Reed, are still quite young and either haven’t yet debuted or have only just debuted in the Majors) have already reached success in the majors:

  • AJ Reed
  • Kris Bryant
  • Mike Zunino
  • Trevor Bauer
  • Bryce Harper
  • Stephen Strasburg
  • Buster Posey
  • David Price
  • Tim Lincecum
  • Alex Gordon
  • Jered Weaver
  • Rickie Weeks
  • Khalil Greene
  • Mark Prior
  • Jason Jennings (as Chris pointed out, he had a great start to his career)
  • Pat Burrell
  • J.D. Drew
  • Travis Lee
  • Mark Kotsay
  • Jason Varitek

Some might look at this list and say it’s circumstantial; that it’s not necessarily an indicator of AJ Reed’s future success probability.  I agree, it’s not…but it sure is a hell of a coincidence.  One that bears mentioning.  Also, AJ Reed was drafted in 2014 and, roughly a year later AND after switching from being primarily a pitcher to being only a first baseman, he’s now playing in AA Corpus Christi.  Jon Singleton was drafted in 2009 by the Phillies and then played his first season in AA nearly three years later, in 2012. Certainly that can be chalked up to his youth and the adjustment to pro ball, compared with less of an adjustment curve for Reed coming out of college.  However, that is the part that adds to the argument for Reed over Singleton.  It’s not that Singleton can’t become a good major league player, it’s that it’s likely to take him longer than Reed to achieve roughly the same ceiling.  As you alluded to, Reed certainly does have some work left to do adjusting to first base full time as a professional in the high minors.  I’m not terribly concerned, partly due to first base defense not being as demanding or important as other positions defensively, partly because of Reed’s athleticism, coachability and work ethic, and partly because he only began the transition to full time first base a year ago after being drafted.  I don’t expect him to win gold glove awards, I expect him to contribute offensively with a wRC+ of at least 115 or so.  Anything beyond that, either with his offensive production or defensively, is icing on the cake from my point of view.

However, the main issue for me in all of this is just the disappointment factor so far with Singleton.  I don’t say he’s a bust, far from it.  I think if he could ever get consistent, every day playing time that he’d probably grow into a solid major league player.  Probably right around the annual 115 wRC+ I expect from Reed, and maybe even better. Maybe.  My issue is that so far, he hasn’t shown much with the playing time he HAS received, and whether it’s prospect fatigue or not, it certainly has soured me some on him.  I honestly do expect that he leaves and becomes the next J.D. Martinez for the Astros…I really do.  I just think A.J. Reed still has that unsullied promise and is now achieving success in the high minors…making him the slightly more attractive option long-term for the Astros, from my point of view.

Part of it is irrational, that unsullied potential, but there is quite a bit of rational projection there too.  Perhaps neither player is a star in five or even ten years.  But for the Astros, it seems slightly safer to bet on Reed at this point.  Just my opinion.

* * *

From: Anthony Boyer
To: Jason Marbach

I'll pick through these a little piecemeal, so my apologies if I start to sprawl a bit.

The conversation about bust rates of high schoolers versus college players is certainly an interesting one - but I think it's best-reserved for when players are farther away from the majors, if not actually still amateurs. Once a player is in professional baseball, the question of whether they were drafted out of high school or out of college becomes pretty moot, because we have a statistical track record to point at.

If you look at the 2015 MLB All-Star rosters, only 44.74% of the players went to four-year colleges. Even if you only count the American-born players, only 53% went to four-year colleges. So that's a lot of star-level (or at least All-Star-level) players who didn't come from four-year colleges. In other words, once a player is in the high minors or the major leagues, all bets are off.

Similarly, it's great to look at former Golden Spikes Award winners and say "Look at how great they did," but Jon Singleton never even had a chance to win the award. Why not? Because when he was twenty-one, he wasn't in college. He was in Triple-A, the highest level of affiliated ball. And frankly, I'm not sure I'd point to a list with Mike Zunino and Trevor Bauer as recent members and use it as any sort of proof of anyone being the future anything - at least, not before Zunino hits above .220 or Bauer posts an ERA below 4.00.

One other thing I do want to touch on is the idea that Reed is somehow just learning how to be a full-time position player. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, he had more than 200 at-bats at Kentucky - in 2013, he led Kentucky's roster in at-bats; in 2014 he was third, and in 2012, seventh. So it's not like he's a guy who got converted off of the mound upon getting drafted. He was a three-year starter in a premium college conference, the SEC, with 638 career at-bats in college. Kris Bryant, who was drafted second-overall in 2013 and was an All-Star this season in the major leagues, had an identical 638 career at-bats in college. No one is making the case that he's just learning how to adapt to playing the field.

Unsullied promise is great, but I'd argue that Jon Singleton had that once, too. He was ranked as highly as the 25th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus, and never fell off of the top-100 list before he lost his rookie eligibility. Reed hasn't hit that list yet. Not that he's incapable of doing so this offseason, but that's sort of a microcosm of this conversation, isn't it? Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Whereas with Singleton, we have a track record we can look at, and it's still developing.

Of course, I'm not saying that Reed won't end up being a better player than Singleton. But until he is, I think it makes sense to count on Singleton being the better player in the long run. When you look at a 24-year-old with an 82 wRC+ in the big leagues, I think it's hard to remember that that's actually not bad. With consistent playing time and some level of job security, I can easily see Singleton improving down the road offensively. And until Reed proves that he can surpass him, I think he has to be thought of as the Astros' first baseman of the future.

I'll give you the final word.

* * *

From: Jason Marbach
To: Anthony Boyer

I'm not sure about the assertion about the high school vs. college players being best reserved for low minors or as amateurs...the article I linked in my previous response generates talking points based off the players' career rWAR as defined by Baseball Reference.  That seems clearly to speak to a much larger body of work than just amateur-level through the low minors, casting it as highly relevant data - if accepted as fact - to this conversation.  Intuitively, it stands to reason that whether players go to college or not, they still have to mature as adults throughout their end-teens through low twenties.  If this is done collegiately, as a bit of a transitional buffer zone to professional ball, the track record shows that those players tend to have higher levels of success more frequently than those young adults who have to cope with the rather large jump from high school to professional baseball along with the natural maturation process all young adults must undergo.

In other words, it speaks to the trajectory to the major leagues having a steeper (read: faster) slope for Collegiate players than it does for high school players.

This plays well into AJ Reed's progression to the everyday first base job in the majors, not because he'll necessarily be much better than Singleton...but because he should reach his ceiling more quickly (in terms of minor and major league service time) than Singleton and thereby supplant him.

Singleton's results at the highest level have thus far been uninspiring, to be kind, in a pretty small (in the neighborhood of 400 plate appearances) sample size.  True enough that he has improved this year, especially defensively and versus left handed pitching, and he's also made noticeable strides in cutting his K rate this year.

These are excellent points, and a reason not to just give up on him.  However, if you tried to project his hitting his ceiling, most attempts would lead you to believe that he might not truly get there until his age 26 or 27 season...if he gets there at all, as that's really pushing it for development in the grand scheme.  And if AJ Reed can match or surpass Singleton by HIS age 24 season, I could see the Astros moving Singleton (a team like the Pirates leaps readily to mind as a potentially excellent trade partner) to clear the way for Reed to start every day.  Considering that his current success in the high minors puts him, barring injury or major regression, roughly in line to get his first cup of coffee sometime next September (if not sooner) during his age 23 season, this is an entirely realistic scenario in my mind.

In the meantime, it is of the utmost priority (again, in my mind) that Jon Singleton be receiving the lion's share of the major league playing time.  He has very little left to prove in AAA, and the consistent playing time through his major league struggles can only help him develop more - either rendering Reed expendable for a hefty return via trade, or making Singleton more attractive when it's Reed's time.

As for my irrational fixation with Reed's thus-far unsullied potential, it's true that Singleton's once was too.  But it's not now, and Reed's still is.  The promise of potential is intoxicating to my emotions.

The cold hard facts - or, rather, my interpretation of them - are intoxicating to my ration and reason, however, and it matches the fervent nature of my irrational emotional fixation, too.

Either way, we have two very promising young first basemen who need only hard work, consistent playing time at the appropriate levels...and a bit of reach their ceilings as plus (if not elite) bats at the cold corner in the major leagues.  I just think Reed will be our guy, long term.

* * *

Thanks so much to Jason for the conversation. What do you think, readers? Do you believe you've seen enough of Jon Singleton to throw the towel in on him as a major leaguer? Do you think A.J. Reed is #thetruth? Do you think that the Astros of the future will have to find at-bats for both of these promising young sluggers? We welcome your opinion in the comments.