Yesterday morning, I woke up to this somewhat-surprising tweet:
Astros 2011 third rounder Jack Armstrong has retired. Minor leaguers RHP Erick Gonzalez and RHP Alan Abreu were released.— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) March 27, 2014
As mentioned by Drellich, Armstrong was a third rounder in the 2011 draft. A 6'7" right-hander out of Vanderbilt University, and the son of a former All-Star, the younger Armstrong turned down a $1M signing bonus from Texas to go to college, and later signed with the Astros for $750,000.
However, due to a rash of arm injuries - including Tommy John surgery - the ironically-surnamed prodigy never threw a single pitch in affiliated ball.
This story - as is the case with most stories - does not begin with the end of his career. At least not exactly.
Let's back up a moment, to early March, when Brian McTaggart announced that Armstrong was looking to move from the mound to first base.
"It's good I was a two-way guy in college so I was always swinging. ... It's something I always wanted to do since I loved it so much, and I was pretty good at it, and based on the circumstances because the arm has been through a lot, it's nice to have something to fall back on and to keep playing this game as long as you can." - Jack Armstrong, Jr.
Referring to himself as a "two-way guy in college" caught me as a little strange. After all, while he did hit .571, he did it over the course of a whole seven plate appearances, spread over three years - none of them in his final year.
Where Armstrong did excel with his bat was in high school. According to one Perfect Game report, after the 2007 WWBA National Invitational, "he stood out more as a first baseman than as a pitcher, actually." He showed plus power, and ran the 60 in 6.91.
Prior to that, he'd actually played some shortstop in high school. When he arrived at the 2006 National Underclass Showcase, he garnered another good scouting report: "Not surprisingly, Armstrong looked very fluid and agile at first base on defense and hit the ball well with power on offense."
So the conversion to first base, while not ideal, at least had the twinges of promise. The problem, of course, is that first base isn't where you'd ideally like to put a busted pitcher who's converting to being a position player. First base is where you put guys who couldn't handle catching, or third base, or corner outfield spots. First base is where a player ends his fielding career, not where he ideally starts it.
With a system full of intriguing first base types like Chase McDonald, Bobby Borchering, M.P. Cokinos, Jon Singleton, Conrad Gregor, and on and on... say what you want about Jesse Wierzbicki, but at the very least he's been a good soldier. How can you cut him while training a failed pitcher to take his job? One who hasn't consistently hit since 2008, at that?
So, faced with long odds, a shrinking timeline, and the prospect of a never-ending extended spring training, Armstrong chose to retire from affiliated ball.
Jack Armstrong, Jr., has marched off into the night, at least for now. But I wouldn't be surprised if we saw him pop up in an independent league somewhere to show himself off as a first baseman. The Can-Am League, the American Association, the Atlantic League, the Frontier League. Any of them may benefit from having a 6'7" bonus baby with something left to prove. Armstrong was always an elite athlete, so I wouldn't put it past him to carve out something of a career in baseball, whether that's as a player, a coach, or somethng else entirely.
[Edit: I initially wrote this article as if Armstrong had been released, because I can't read. The fact that he chose to retire, instead - weeks after his conversion was publicly proposed - changes some of the context, but none of the sentiment.]