Amidst the flurry of signings and trades every offseason come the industry’s various top prospect lists to fill all 30 fanbases with hope for the future. When your team is bad, these prospects represent the light at the end of the tunnel. When your team is good, you can convince yourself that they are the missing puzzle piece in your team’s World Series aspirations. Sometimes these players come up to the big leagues and deliver as promised, but often expectations far outweigh reality and disappointment follows. Prospects will break your heart.
Case in point: Astros first baseman Jon Singleton.
Hearing the Astros placed Jon Singleton on outright waivers, the first step to removal from the 40-man roster.— Jake Kaplan (@jakemkaplan) November 19, 2016
Singleton is likely to clear waivers & be outrighted to AAA. Guaranteed $2 million in each of next 2 years w/ a $500,000 buyout for '19.— Jake Kaplan (@jakemkaplan) November 19, 2016
Singleton was drafted by the Phillies in the 8th round of the 2009 draft and traded to the Astros in the deal that brought Hunter Pence to Philadelphia. He represented a potential franchise-anchoring slugger at first base who, along with Carlos Correa and George Springer, would help make all that losing worth it to Astros’ fans. In a 2012 chat on Baseball Prospectus, Jason Parks was asked about Singleton’s power:
fredlummis (Houston): What kind of power potential do you see in Jonathan Singleton?
Jason Parks: 7 raw; most likely to play at 5 early, but should tick up as he matures as a hitter.
A raw power grade of seven will always elicit drooling among prospect hounds. Combine that budding power with exceptional on-base skills and there was plenty of reason to overlook the potentially disastrous contact issues and dream on what could be. As you can see from his inclusion in Top 100 prospect lists for four straight years, the scouting community believed in Singleton’s talent for a long time.
|Baseball America 2011 Top 100||#39|
|Baseball America 2012 Top 100||#34|
|Baseball America 2013 Top 100||#27|
|Baseball America 2014 Top 100||#82|
|Baseball Prospectus 2011 Top 101||#63|
|Baseball Prospectus 2012 Top 101||#73|
|Baseball Prospectus 2013 Top 101||#25|
|Baseball Prospectus 2014 Top 101||#57|
|FanGraphs 2011 Top 100||#38|
|FanGraphs 2012 Top 100||#58|
|FanGraphs 2013 Top 100||#29|
|FanGraphs 2014 Top 100||#55|
|Minor League Ball 2011 Top 50 Hitters||#18|
|Minor League Ball 2012 Top 120||#47|
|Minor League Ball 2013 Top 150||#57|
|Minor League Ball 2014 Top 150||#28|
It was this obvious potential that led the Astros to sign Singleton to a five year extension worth $10 million the day before he was set to make his major league debut. Despite the vocal objections of veteran pitchers Bud Norris and Mark Mulder, the deal seemed like a win-win for both parties involved at the time.
Singleton sacrificed some future earning power for security, but would still make $30 million if all the options were picked up. He wouldn’t reach free agency until age 30, but that would still be young enough to sign a substantial second contract, especially at a position like first base where plenty of sluggers get by without youthful athleticism. Meanwhile, the Astros were able to lock up their prospect for what would be considered well below market value should he turn into the impact player they hoped he would. He did not.
There are often a myriad of different factors that go into explaining why a player does or does not succeed at the major league level. This is not the case with Singleton. His power was not at all in question, and his ability to draw walks was a skill that transferred well from the minor leagues to the majors. The contact skills just never seemed to improve.
|PA||BB%||K%||Swing% (pfx)||Contact% (pfx)||SwStr%|
|Jon Singleton 2014||362||13.8%||37.0%||43.0%||64.6%||15.1%|
|League Average 2014||—||7.6%||20.4%||46.2%||79.3%||9.5%|
|Jon Singleton 2015||58||17.2%||29.3%||43.4%||64.2%||15.5%|
|League Average 2015||—||7.7%||20.4%||46.9%||78.8%||9.9%|
It’s a profile that is very similar to that of Brewers’ first baseman Chris Carter. The main difference being that Carter has maintained a career HR/FB rate of 21.2 percent while Singleton’s sits at 14.3 percent. When you have so much trouble making contact, the power has to be overwhelming when you are actually able to connect. That’s why Carter held down a starting job on his way to 41 home runs in 2016, while Singleton finds himself off the Astros’ 40-man roster.
The Astros have other first base options in AJ Reed, Tyler White, Marwin Gonzalez, and even the newly acquired Brian McCann, and the offseason is still young. So while this does not mark the end of Jon Singleton’s career, joining a new organization may be in his best interest. New team or not, he will continue to get an opportunity to play professional baseball in the minor leagues and is still just 25 years old. Even a slight improvement in contact rate and HR/FB percentage would most likely get him another shot in the big leagues.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that it’s difficult for a zebra to change his stripes and examples of drastic improvements in contact skills are few and far between. For now, Singleton becomes more fodder for the “prospects are suspects until proven otherwise” crowd to proclaim another bust, while the rest of us find some other young ballplayer to pin our hopes on.
Baseball is hard, folks.
. . .
Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.