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Astros Officially Create the Sign-and-Promote with Jon Singleton

For the last year or so, the Astros have reportedly been offering various long-term deals to some of the young players in their organization, using the carrot of guaranteed millions to try and buy out a couple of free agent years. Up until now, no one had signed the offer, and Evan Longoria remained the record holder for fewest number of days of service before signing a long-term deal. However, with first base prospect Jon Singleton, the Astros have now codified the first deal that officially includes a Major League call-up as part of the package.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, Singleton’s deal is for $10 million guaranteed over the next five seasons, beginning in 2014, with three team options that could push the total value of the deal to $35 million. By getting seven more years of team control after this season, the Astros are essentially buying one free agent year in advance — they would have owned the rest of 2014 anyway, plus six full seasons afterwards — and signing this deal now allowed Singleton to get promoted without worrying about the Super-Two deadline. Had Singleton not signed the deal, he likely would have spent several more weeks in Triple-A.

It goes without saying that this deal is a huge potential boon to the Astros. If Singleton turns out to be a quality player, he would have gone well beyond $35 million in his arbitration years and first free agent season, but if Singleton busts, they’re only out $7 or $8 million above and beyond what they would have paid by going year to year. Risking $7 or $8 million for a chance to save upwards of $30 million — let’s assume a high-quality slugging 1B would have earned ~$40 million in future arbitration earnings and another ~$25 million for his first free agent year — is a total no-brainer for a team like the Astros. There’s a reason they’ve been trying to get nearly every player with any modicum of talent to take deals like these. These deals lean very heavily towards the organization’s favor.

But for Singleton, this represents a significant guarantee. As an 8th round pick in the 2009 draft, he signed for $200,000, so he hasn’t been living in poverty as a minor leaguer, but between taxes, agent commissions, living expenses, and his admitted drug addiction, it’s safe to say that he probably doesn’t have a lot of that money left. In fact, when discussing this particular deal, we cannot ignore Singleton’s past words.

“At this point, it’s pretty evident to me that I’m a drug addict,” Singleton told The Associated Press over breakfast on a recent day near the Astros’ camp. “I don’t openly tell everyone that, but it’s pretty apparent to myself.”

First baseman Jon Singleton spent a month at a rehab facility last year to battle marijuana addiction. “He’s still young and still learning about baseball and about life,” Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said.
Vividly so.

“I know that I enjoy smoking weed, I enjoy being high, and I can’t block that out of my mind that I enjoy that,” he said. “So I have to work against that.”

On the one hand, one could argue that giving a self-admitted drug addict $10 million in guaranteed money makes this deal even more of a risk for the Astros. After all, his resources available to purchase marijuana just went way up.

But I think there’s a flip side to this coin as well. The Astros have now provided Singleton with a significant, contractually-guaranteed financial motivation to stay clean. There’s now a tangible financial cost to failing a drug test, and he can measure exactly how much those drugs would cost him if he failed a test and got suspended. Where the cost was previously abstract, pushing back his timeline to reach arbitration at some point in three or four years, it is now laid out in black and white exactly how much money Singleton will lose if he gets caught using drugs again.

As outsiders, I think this is a case where we know even less than usual about the amount of risk a player should be willing to carry in exchange for future potential gain. While players should not be lining up to take these kinds of deals, I find it hard to tell an admitted drug-addict that he should bet on himself staying clean and living up to his potential. Maybe for Singleton, having his future potential earnings spelled out in a long-term contract will be just the motivation he needs to stay clean.

In this particular case, I find it hard to suggest that Singleton sold his risk too cheaply, because we just can’t really know what his own personal risk tolerance is, or should be. Given his past, perhaps taking $10 million now really will be better for him than going year to year would have been.

The opposite could be true as well, of course. I think, in a situation like this, we lack the requisite information to suggest that there was clearly a better path for the player. In this case, if asked whether this deal was a good idea for Singleton, it feels like “I don’t know” is the only response I’m comfortable with.