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Houston Astros

The hopeful rise and ignominious fall of Astros 1B Jon Singleton

Evan Davis

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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
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Astros first baseman Jon Singleton was suspended 100 games last week for a third drug abuse offense. The 26-year-old’s major league career is likely finished. The news on its own is not huge, but when placed in the context of what the Astros are, what they were, and what they thought they might become at the dawn of the Jeff Luhnow era, Singleton serves as a stark reminder of the luck that accompanied the brain and brawn that earned Houston its first-ever World Series victory last fall.

There was a time when a great deal of promise was seen in Singleton. Drafted in the eighth round out of high school by the Phillies in 2009, many scouts thought that he could have been an easy second-rounder. He displayed easy power throughout the early minors, and was considered the headlining prospect when the Phillies traded him to the Astros for Hunter Pence at the 2011 trade deadline. Singleton was only 19 at the time, and the sky appeared to be the limit.

2012 brought him crashing back to earth. He earned two suspensions for marijuana infractions. The suspensions clearly affected his on-field performance throughout 2013, though they didn’t stop most prospect analysts from considering him top-100 material at the dawn of the 2014 campaign. Indeed, he finally earned his call-up later that June, at a time when the Astros were pulling themselves out of the 50-win muck, George Springer was impressing as a rookie, and Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel were starting to put it all together.

Singleton quickly wrote his way into the history books when he signed a contract extension a mere two days after debuting with Houston. His five-year, $10 million deal with club options raised plenty of eyebrows, particularly the MLB Players Association. If Singleton turned into half the prospect he could be, the team was practically stealing his services. Astro general manager Jeff Luhnow was betting on it, securing Singleton for his entire pre-arb and arbitration years for pennies on the dollar.

Somehow, someway, that contract proved a bust. His half-season as the Astros’ everyday first baseman was a mess. Singleton’s struggles against left-handed pitching were viciously exposed. When paired with poor pitch recognition, they left him staring at the business end of a 37 percent strikeout rate. He didn’t swing often, but when he did, he didn’t make contact. His contact rate on pitches in the zone sat below 72 percent; the league average was 86 percent. Singleton probably ran into some bad batted ball luck, but his carrying tool–his power–didn’t outweigh the contact problems.

Singleton began 2015 in triple-A, where he demonstrated that he didn’t have much left to learn. He was brought back up for a month to fill in for Chris Carter. He managed an 84 wRC+ and almost no power in 53 plate appearances. He languished in triple-A in 2016, either as a result of a stagnating skill set or a psychological block. Singleton was hot stuff when he was 18; at 24, he was a waste of a major leaguer. Who wouldn’t be affected by that?

Such was the collapse of Singleton’s career that he was demoted to double-A last year, after being outrighted and reassigned. The move allowed the Astros to clear him off their 40-man roster, hoping to minimize the damage. Singleton was able to get everyday playing time by dropping a level, but what was the point? What else did he have to prove? The organization wasn’t enamored of A.J. Reed, but thought he was the better long-term option. Singleton was a lost cause.

Last week’s reports didn’t specify which drug Singleton was caught using, but given the trajectory of his career, it’s hard to imagine that it will allow him to find a home after the end of this season. The Astros will almost certainly not pick up his option, leaving him to sign a minor league deal or take his talents to Asia or indie ball. Singleton will be 27 next offseason.

Prospects rarely pan out. It’s the nature of the sport. Even in an analytical age, guys fall through the cracks. It’s not as though there weren’t warning signs with Singleton to begin with; he fell from the second to the eighth rounds because he dipped in his senior year of high school. Big-bodied first base prospects who can’t pick up breaking balls don’t have great track records when–or if–they reach the majors. But Singleton outgrew those concerns. The hit tool came around. He was part of the team of the future. He signed a contract two days into the majors. There was so much potential there.

Then, in the course of three years, it all vanished. There’s a tragedy to Singleton that other prospects don’t carry. The Astros moved on and won a World Series. Singleton didn’t get to move on. He didn’t get to share in the glory. All that’s left of a once promising career is the ignominy of a third drug suspension and the gaping chasm of the rest of his life.

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Evan Davis is a regular contributor to Today's Knuckleball. His work has appeared at BP Bronx, Beyond the Box Score, and Amazin' Avenue. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ProfessorDobles.

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