The Rise And Fall (And Rise?) Of Jonathan Singleton

Last week, I wrote about George Springer and his complete demolition of minor-league pitching. This week, I’d like to take a look at one of Springer’s Triple-A teammates, Jon Singleton. Coming off a .284/.396/.497 season in Double-A in 2012, Singleton was featured in the top third of most Top 100 prospect lists last year, including here at FanGraphs.

At the time, Singleton was absolutely worth the hype. There aren’t a whole lot of players with as much raw power potential as Singleton has shown; he’s a batting-practice monster with jaw-dropping pull power, and it was starting to translate in-game as well. His isolated power, which was .143 in 525 High-A plate appearances in 2011, jumped to .213 in 555 plate appearances as a 20-year-old in Double-A, and he hit 21 homers, 27 doubles and four triples. I’ve always loved his swing; it’s got some natural lift to it that pairs well with his upper-body strength and produces some very loud contact.

Unfortunately for Singleton, his career was about to nose-dive. In January of 2013, he tested positive for marijuana and was suspended for 50 games. Ironically, as Craig Calcaterra pointed out at the time, Singleton would not have been suspended at all if he had been on the 40-man roster. Something tells me it would behoove Major League Baseball to have the same drug-testing policy at all levels, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The suspension itself wasn’t a huge red flag; for some, it called Singleton’s judgment into question, but it’s not like he was busted for a performance-enhancer. If Singleton had sat out his 50 games and come back looking like the same player we saw in 2012, he’d still be in the upper echelon of prospects. Instead, Singleton’s 2013 was a disaster, leaving him as a bit of a forgotten man heading into 2014.

Upon returning from the suspension, he played a handful of games at the Single-A and Double-A levels before receiving his expected promotion to Triple-A. I had seen Singleton in Double-A and at the Futures Game in 2012, and was looking forward to seeing how he would adjust to Triple-A. The first time I showed up to watch him play last year, I was tremendously disappointed from the moment I laid eyes on him.

Most reports you’ll read out there say something to the effect of Singleton showing up out of shape. That’s quite the understatement, folks. He wasn’t simply out of shape, he was downright chubby, looking more like a beer-league softball player than a future major-leaguer. As a result, he was a completely different player than I’d seen the year before.

Singleton’s swing had slowed down so much with the added weight that he simply couldn’t barrel up the ball with any consistency. His strikeout rate soared from 23.6% in 2012 to 30.3% last season. His isolated power plummeted from .213 all the way down to .127, the lowest mark of his career at any level. He finished the season with a .220/.340/.347 slash and hit just six home runs.

One major knock on Singleton even in his days as a Top-30 prospect was the question of whether he would ever be able to hit left-handed pitching. At High-A in 2011, his slash line in 184 plate appearances against lefties was just .248/.353/.301 with an ISO of .053 (all 13 of his home runs that season came against righties). He showed much-improved power against lefties in 2012, as his ISO climbed up to .185 in 139 plate appearances, but his OBP was just .309. Still, improving his on-base plus slugging percentage against left-handed pitching from .654 in High-A to a .728 OPS against lefties in Double-A was a good sign.

The regression monster devoured that part of Singleton’s game in Triple-A as well, as he scuffled to a .170/.301/.245 slash in 113 plate appearances against lefties, with the ISO back down to .075. After the season, the Astros sent Singleton to play in the winter leagues, with the hope that he could rekindle a career that had hit a major bump in the road.

As it turns out, Singleton reportedly showed up looking considerably slimmer and he absolutely crushed the ball. In 123 plate appearances, he led the Puerto Rican Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente in home runs with nine and his 26 walks were good enough for second place in the league. It’s only a 35-game sample, but he hit .268/.396/.537 and he showed more power against lefties than ever before, swatting five homers in just 49 plate appearances against left-handers. While it’s obviously a tiny sample, consider the fact that Singleton had hit just five homers in his previous 443 plate appearances against lefties over the last three years. The one bad trend from his stint in winter ball? His strikeout rate remained a bit high, at 24.8%.

At present, Singleton still isn’t on the radar for fantasy drafts in redraft leagues for 2014. However, AL-only owners should keep a close eye on him in Spring Training to see if his success in winter ball carries over. Much like his teammate Springer, he strikes out way too much to be a likely candidate for a high batting average, but also like Springer, his ability to draw tons of walks will boost his value in on-base percentage leagues. I still wouldn’t be comfortable playing him against lefties, but he could be a very useful AL-only commodity by year’s end.

Barring some sort of off-the-charts performance this spring, I fully expect Singleton to start the 2014 season back in Triple-A. If he stays in shape and hits more like he did in 2012 than he did last year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the majors sometime in June. The bottom line on Singleton is that one lost season doesn’t bust a prospect, especially one that is still only 22 years old. In my opinion, he still has the ceiling to hit 25+ homers annually in the majors, it’s just that there’s a far greater risk factor than there was a year ago.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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I guess the question is whether or not he can get on base more than Chris Carter or Brett Wallace.