Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Could the Braves Follow the Astros' Lead

Yesterday, Houston Astros 1B Jon Singleton signed a five-year contract worth $10M with incentives and option years that could see the contract worth $35M over eight years. The prospect, who has ranked in the #100 in both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus in each of the last four years, had been hitting .267 with a .941 OPS for Houston's AAA squad, Oklahoma City. Singleton was once acquired in the Hunter Pence deal back in 2011. The announcement was historic because Singleton had yet to spend a day in the majors. While some notably agreed to extensions before a full season in the majors, agreeing to a contract extension as a minor leaguer was unprecedented.

Other prospects, notably the Pirates Gregory Polanco, have declined taking this step. It appeals to the team because the player has little bargaining power and could prefer the stability of a contract in hand while the team avoids often expensive and sometimes contentious arbitration with the player. The player, though, could lose out on millions.

It made me think, though. If this becomes a trend, could Atlanta be interested in locking up a minor leaguer before his debut? Probably not. The Braves rarely concern themselves with the Super 2 deadline. On the other hand, the Braves did lock up Julio Teheran after one full season and Andrelton Simmons after a year-and-a-half.

Let's suppose the Braves consider it, though. Who might interest Atlanta?

Lucas Sims stands out. Though he only turned 20 on May 10th, Sims is already in the Carolina League. His strikeout numbers have declined and the homers are up compared to what he did at Rome, but young pitchers sometimes are told to tinker more so than compete. By the end of the season, we might know more. Let's imagine for a second that Sims finishes strong with the Hillcats and takes the show to Mississippi next season. After a plus 2015 and a promotion to end the year in Gwinnett, the Braves have Sims pushing for a spot in the majors.

Could Atlanta be intrigued by the proposition of locking up Sims? I don't see it. The thing about pitchers is they can take awhile to establish themselves in the majors. Look at Mike Minor, for instance. And unlike Sims, he was a college starter for a major conference team. The wash-out rate of pitching prospects seems excessively high and inking Sims to a four-to-six year deal would be difficult to support until he establishes himself.

What about catcher Christian Bethancourt? The Braves thought enough of him last season to protect him on the 40-man roster despite a year at Mississippi where he posted a .566 OPS. His defense was too valuable. It was so valuable that Atlanta couldn't afford to let him leave. After a solid year with Mississippi last year, he has struggled to reach a .650 OPS this season with Gwinnett.

This is unfair because Bethancourt does have an at-bat in the majors, but could Atlanta be interested in locking him up? Again, probably not. His glove could be good enough to win a Gold Glove, but will he hit well enough to stay in the lineup while unseating Evan Gattis? I think Atlanta would have to see more.

If anyone has a chance, it's Jose Peraza. A ready-made leadoff hitter who profiles as a plus defender at second base, Paraza has handled the Carolina League well despite being only 20. Two months in, his average is sitting at .320 and he has added a franchise-best 27 steals. Braves would likely want to see him show more patience (10 walks this season, one intentional), but Peraza, once he arrives, could easily turn in a .730 OPS, positive UZR at second, 40 steals, and a .340-.360 OBP with chances to max out closer to .750-.775 OPS with even more steals once he establishes himself.

I could see the Braves kick the tires on this one. Peraza likely won't be sniffing the major league roster until 2016. In addition, Tommy La Stella has already beat him to the majors and could establish himself. Still, Peraza should be the better player ultimately. I could see the Braves seeing how a four-year contract with option years and incentives would look for Peraza.

Clearly, if Singleton fails in the bigs, his contract will discourage other teams from taking the leap. But if Singleton ends up being a bargain, the Braves could be intrigued by the option of saving some payroll room by locking up youngsters early. These three might interest the Braves if that is the case.

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