Mar 16, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Jon Singleton (21) hits a two run double to right field during the sixth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Osceola County Stadium. The Tigers won 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Article continues below ...
The Houston Astros decided to cut bait on former top prospect Jon Singleton last Saturday. Now, the Colorado Rockies have a chance to buy low on a player that seemed destined for stardom just a few years ago.
The average baseball fan is probably more familiar with Singleton for his contract than for his play on the field. When Houston released Singleton, both Yahoo Sports and CBS Sports mentioned Singleton’s “unprecedented” deal in the headline of their articles reporting on his release.
Some background: Singleton was drafted out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies, and immediately started tearing up older competition in the minor leagues. Singleton eventually became the centerpiece of the trade that sent Hunter Pence from Houston to Philly. Many believed it was only a matter of time before he became a fixture in the Astros lineup.
The path to stardom has never been a smooth one for Singleton though. Before his senior year in high school, Singleton was considered one of the draft’s top high school bats. But a disappointing season led to him dropping all the way into the eighth round.
Even as Singleton was establishing himself as a top prospect, there were red flags cropping up off the field. Singleton tested positive for marijuana three different times; the third resulting in a 50-game suspension and a month-long trip to rehab. Singleton spoke openly about using marijuana “off and on” dating back to when he was just 14 years old.
Despite the issues, most still thought that Singleton’s arrival as an MLB regular was only a matter of when, not if. The Astros added him to 40-man roster at the end of the 2013 season. Then, in June of 2014, they signed Singleton to a 5-year, $10 million contract. The deal was the first (and to date, only) of it’s kind, easily the largest contract ever given to a drafted player with no MLB experience.
The day after the extension was signed, Singleton was in the starting lineup and homered for his first MLB hit. And that, unfortunately, was the high point. Singleton hit just .168 while striking out in over a third of his at-bats in 2014.
Houston put Singleton in Triple-A to start 2015, likely hoping that he would force their hand with a hot start. Instead, Singleton’s numbers regressed, and he spent most of the season in the minors. In 2016, the bottom fell out for Singleton, hitting just .202 in 124 Triple-A games.
Obviously, the contract looks ridiculous in hindsight. Lost in that however, is the fact that the Astros were widely praised for the move at the time. When Singleton put ink to paper on the extension, industry experts predicted they would save millions in future arbitration payments. The fact that Houston is now being mocked for the deal is a textbook example of hindsight bias.
More interestingly for the Rockies and other teams however, is what this means now for Singleton.
Mar 21, 2016; Melbourne, FL, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Jon Singleton (21) sits in the dugout during the sixth inning against the Washington Nationals at Space Coast Stadium. The Washington Nationals won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
The last two years have been ugly, but there have still been flashes of the guy that was once considered one of baseball’s best young hitters.
Singleton is the definition of a “Three True Outcomes” hitter, meaning his plate appearances are extremely likely to end in either a strikeout, a walk, or a home run.
Even as things have gone wrong for Singleton over the last few seasons, the raw power that caught the eyes of so many scouts hasn’t left him. In just under 800 at-bats over the last two seasons, Singleton has crushed 42 home runs in Triple-A.
Part of Singleton’s prolonged slump at the plate can also be attributed to bad luck. Singleton is a slow runner who swings with a noticeable upper cut, so he’s never going to have a particularly high BABIP, but last season’s mark of .232 still seems suspiciously low, especially for a guy who seems to have no problem generating exit velocity.
The biggest flaw in Singleton’s game is no mystery: he swings and misses far more than you would like. Singleton has 357 official MLB at-bats, and 151 of them (or a staggering 42.3 percent) have ended with him turning around and walking back to the dugout after strike three. It doesn’t matter how strong a hitter is if they’re having that hard of a time just making contact.
But writing Singleton off as a lost cause might be a mistake. It’s easy to forget because he’s been playing professionally for seven years now, but Singleton is still a young man. Born in September of 1991, he’s just 25 years old, half a year younger than Rockies catching prospect Tom Murphy. It’s not unreasonable to believe Singleton could mature both as a ballplayer and as a person over the next few years.
About six years ago, the Texas Rangers demoted a player with an extremely similar profile to Singleton. This player was a star first base prospect who still had the power to crush long home runs, but his lack of contact had torpedoed his confidence and his batting average. Out of patience with the 25-year old slugger, the Rangers shipped him to Baltimore in a move to shore up their bullpen.
And that, in short, is the story of how Baltimore acquired Chris Davis, one of the game’s most feared power hitters, in exchange for an aging, injury-prone reliever.
Now, this is obviously a best-case comparison, and it’s worth noting that even at his peak, Singleton never destroyed Triple-A pitching in the way Davis did prior to his big break in Baltimore. But there are enough similarities that it’s not hard to picture Singleton, given the right set of circumstances, turning into at least a poor man’s version of Davis.
It just so happens that the Rockies have just about the perfect set-up for SIngleton. They’re a mostly young team that looks mostly ready to compete, minus a gaping hole at first base. And of course, if Singleton can stick at the MLB level, there are few parks better for a power hitter than Coors Field.
It’s also fair to wonder if playing in a lineup as deep as Colorado’s would take some of the pressure off of Singleton. In Houston, he was asked to step into the middle of a mostly bad lineup and be a leader. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a kid who was 22 years old when he made his MLB debut. In Colorado, Singleton could hit further down in the order, where the expectations would be much more reasonable.
Baseball is, by design, a game of failure. About 90 percent of players signed by MLB organizations will never reach the majors, and even among that lucky 10 percent, most will only last for a short time before being replaced by someone new. Success is promised to no one, not even the guys at the top of the prospect ranking lists.
It’s possible that Singleton has strayed too far from the path to return to stardom. He certainly wouldn’t be the first or last prospect to do so. But there’s also a chance that Singleton’ path just isn’t as straight as we originally thought, and a change of scenery could rejuvenate the career of a guy still barely old enough to rent a car.