GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Former Detroit Tigers outfielder Chet Lemon picks up the phone Monday afternoon, and as a reporter brings up his star pupil Brady Singer, Lemon doesn’t even wait for a formal question before launching into 12 minutes of commentary on the Florida ace.
The 2018 MLB Draft is less than 5 hours away at the time of the call, and Singer is projected as a top-5 draft pick after already claiming the SEC Pitcher of the Year award as well as Baseball America’s National Player of the Year honors during a stellar junior season with the Gators.
Lemon, his longtime summer ball coach and mentor, wants to make an additional plug to the teams at the top of the draft (particularly his Tigers at No. 1 overall), though.
“I know this is a huge day for him,” Lemon says. “I try to pay as much attention as I can to college baseball and top [prospects] in high school baseball. … Nobody is as ready to pitch right now. If you had to have a kid you were going to take to the big leagues tomorrow and give him a start, nobody is as ready as Brady. Nobody, to me, would understand what they had to do as much as that kid would, and go out and compete and believe that he can get guys out more than that kid would.”
However it shakes out Monday night, with the first round of the draft set to begin at 7 p.m. ET on MLB Network, Singer already has won.
He bet on himself after choosing not to sign as a second-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays (No. 56 overall) out of high school in 2015, opting instead to follow through on his commitment to Florida.
Neither Singer nor his father, Brett Singer, want to discuss the money that was left on the table at that time, understandably, but whatever the total was, it surely won’t match what the hard-throwing right-hander is likely to receive now.
Baseball America had Singer tabbed as the projected No. 1 overall draft pick back in the preseason and had him slotted at No. 5 to the Cincinnati Reds a few days ago.
According to MLB, the assigned value for the No. 5 pick is nearly $6 million. The top pick in the draft could fetch a deal worth over $8 million.
“I probably think about that every day. Every day,” Brett Singer says of that pivotal decision to go to college. “Because it worked out so good, and I’m proud of the way he handled it, the way he’s worked at his game to put himself in this position.”
Looking back, the Gators ace sums up those 2015 negotiations even more directly.
“Thank God it didn’t work out because now I’m here,” he says.
Becoming a top prospect
Back to Lemon, the former Tigers star who hit 215 home runs in the big leagues from 1975-90. He runs his “Juice” baseball program out of Umatilla, Fla., just down the road from where Singer grew up in Eustis.
Speaking on the phone Monday, he rattles off a list of big leaguers who passed through his program, including Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke, former Gators slugger Matt LaPorta and many more. Lemon says his program is approaching 70 first-round MLB draft picks by this point.
“The list just goes on and on,” he says.
One of Brett Singer’s friends had mentioned Lemon to him and suggested he take a then 13 or 14-year-old Brady over for a workout.
“So Brady got up on the hill and Chet had his back to him kind of, and he throws a pitch and the glove just goes, ‘Pow.’ And you see Chet [look] over his shoulder,” Brett Singer says, telling the story. “And he throws another one, boom, and Chet all of a sudden starts circling the back of the mound. He’s got his attention and he’s like, ‘Now hold on here, son.’
“And from that point on, he just kind of saw his ability, and as he got to know him, he saw his competitiveness and his work ethic.”
Says Singer: “He took me under his wing immediately.”
The ability was obvious. Singer was throwing 81-82 as a lanky freshman in high school when he decided to make pitching his focus, and his power would only grow from there.
But it was that work ethic that Lemon would come to appreciate just as much.
“Right away I knew he was special. He was part of the ‘Max Program.’ We only take eight kids a year,” Lemon says. “We always tell them it has to be people that are really wanting to commit.”
While the Max Program meant intensive three times a week sessions involving weight lifting, agility drills, a throwing program, a nutritional program, etc., Singer would come back and ask Lemon if he would make it four times a week instead. Then five times a week.
“I said, ‘You’re not a machine. You’ve got to give your body downtime,'” Lemon recalls. “… I so admired his desire and his work ethic and the fact that he really, really wanted to be the best.”
As Singer’s velocity grew, so did his arsenal with a devastating slider and an effective changeup, a pitch he got away from in college before adding it back in this season. Lemon, meanwhile, taught him to attack hitters inside and be the aggressor.
And by his senior year at Eustis High School, Singer was soaring up draft boards. He went 8-3 with a 1.25 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 67 innings that season, leading to his selection at No. 56 overall by the Blue Jays.
It was more than he had ever imagined just a few years earlier, and now he faced a pivotal decision that would shape his future.
“No, I was a small-town kid throwing balls. I never thought any of this would happen,” Singer says, looking back. “… I was just throwing a baseball, having some fun in high school.”
Betting on himself
So how close did Singer come to signing with the Blue Jays three summers ago?
“It got within 5 minutes,” Brett Singer says. “Honestly, coming down to the wire, I wasn’t sure that it was going to happen because it was taking so long and at that point he had visited UF and we had talked to Coach [Kevin] O’Sullivan and started to feel very comfortable about that decision. We kind of left everything in the club’s hands to present us with what they wanted to, and if they weren’t going to do exactly what they said they were going to do then he was going to go to school and play for UF.”
Again, Brett Singer doesn’t get into specific numbers, but he says it was about more than that anyway. It was about the feeling the family had by the end of the process.
And he wants to be clear that he has no gripes with the Blue Jays. He says the family greatly appreciated the honor of Brady being drafted so highly out of high school. It just wasn’t meant to be at that time.
“Our point really was if you said you’re going to do this, then do this. It didn’t matter what the gap [in money] was, to be honest,” he says. “And I don’t fault them. Baseball teams have their own reasoning for doing what they do. That’s their business. It was more of a feeling than it was any particular point.”
Says the younger Singer: “It was pretty close, but when it didn’t work out, I wasn’t really upset because I was already moved in, I was already three weeks into school. I adapted quickly and I just kind of got to work. There was no looking back.”
Singer had bet on himself in a big way, and one might wonder if the pressure mounted during his freshman season with the Gators as he posted a pedestrian 4.95 ERA over 22 relief appearances and 1 start.
Singer didn’t look at it that way, though. He knew he was more suited to be a starting pitcher, to work through the week preparing for his day on the mound, and that opportunity came as a sophomore last year.
First, though, he tore through the famed Cape Cod League after his freshman season. MLB.com named him the top prospect from that summer showcase after he posted a 0.64 ERA and 25 strikeouts with 3 walks over 28 innings in the prestigious wood-bat league.
“When he got up to the Cape and he started breaking six bats a game — actually 6.1 — I was like, ‘Yeah, this is good,'” Brett Singer quips.
Singer has been better than good for the Gators ever since that breakthrough summer.
He went 9-5 with a 3.21 ERA and 129 strikeouts with 32 walks in 126 innings last season, including striking out 12 LSU hitters in Game 1 over the College World Series finals to lead Florida to a 4-3 win.
Overall, Singer racked up 21 strikeouts and 2 wins over 14 innings in the CWS while helping the Gators to the program’s first national championship.
“Last year was really emotional for me and my family because that is what we did this for,” Singer says of that feat.
And for an encore performance, the junior is working on a masterpiece of a season with an 11-1 record, 2.27 ERA and 98 Ks with 19 walks in 95 innings. Hence, the SEC Pitcher of the Year award and Baseball America National Player of the Year honor, becoming the first pitcher since 2011 to receive that designation.
It’s especially impressive considering the pressure he had to carry on his shoulders all season, knowing he would be that much more scrutinized as a projected top pick with nowhere for his draft stock to go but down.
His father reiterated to him to take it one pitch, one batter, one inning and one game at a time and not dwell on anything beyond that, but even he is pleasantly surprised at just how well Singer did that.
“Yeah, I really am. Because that’s a lot of pressure, I would think. You can’t tell it from him,” he says.
No different, though, than anything else he’s carried with him these last few years.
Singer says he had no regrets or second thoughts when he chose to pass on a big payday three years ago and come to college, and he certainly has none now.
He’ll continue scripting his Gators legacy during what he hopes is another deep postseason run, but on Monday night his draft fate will be determined and his pivotal 2015 decision more than validated.
“Even if a high schooler would ask me today, ‘What do you think I should do?’ [I’d say], ‘Go to college.’ I think everybody should go to college,” Singer says. “… You get money flashed in your face, and as an 18-year-old kid you want money, of course, but when everything didn’t work out and I went to Florida, it’s the best decision I ever made.”