It's a long way to Philadelphia from Lakewood, N.J., if your chosen career is professional baseball.
You cannot simply make the 70-mile drive from FirstEnergy Park to Citizens Bank Park because, for most players, there are stops in Clearwater, Reading and Allentown in between.
Jonathan Villar , a 19-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic, is batting .288 with 55 runs scored and 33 stolen bases at Lakewood.
That said, first-year manager Mark Parent's single-A Lakewood roster is filled with legitimate big-league prospects. "If you count pitchers and position players, I'd say we have seven or eight," Parent said.
Jonathan Singleton, at 18, has become the premier prospect in the South Atlantic League. Parent said Singleton's hot start with the BlueClaws made him a marked man among the league's hitters. "He came here and started doing so well and started getting a lot of publicity," Parent said. "Pitchers notice when a guy is hot and doing well, and they started to stay away from him and [are] also throwing him hard and in.
"For a while he was a little frustrated and he started expanding his zone, but here recently he is back to his usual approach. He had a 17-pitch at-bat the other day and he's starting to hit line drives. He has been pitched as tough as anybody in the league. I think he's going to be quite a player."
The most publicized pitching prospect at Lakewood has been Jarred Cosart, a 20-year-old righthander with a high-90-m.p.h. fastball. Cosart, in his first full minor-league season, is 7-3 with a 3.79 ERA in 14 starts, but he is currently on the disabled list with a strained elbow. He is expected to return in August.
Cosart, however, is not the only pitching prospect to set foot in Lakewood this season.
Matt Way, after going 7-4 with a 3.65 ERA, was promoted to single-A Clearwater and Brody Colvin, according to Parent, is the BlueClaws' most improved pitcher.
"Although there are a couple of guys that are a close second," Parent said. "Colvin, after his first two or three outings, I wondered if he was going to survive. Now, he's going into the sixth, seventh and eighth inning almost every start. It has really been good to see because he's a hard-working kid. He has really matured."
Colvin, 19 and a seventh-round pick last year, was 1-3 with an 11.15 ERA in four April starts. In 14 starts since, he is 4-3 with a 2.83 ERA, allowing 65 hits in 822/3 innings.
Shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic, has also emerged as a top prospect, hitting .288 with 55 runs scored and 33 stolen bases. He has also made 35 errors, which is not uncommon for players at his level. The Yankees' Derek Jeter, for instance, made 56 errors during his only full season in the South Atlantic League.
Parent named catcher Sebastian Valle, a 2006 signee from Mexico, as his most improved player, mostly because of how he has developed behind the plate.
"At the beginning of the year, he was more worried about his hitting than catching and winning and getting the pitcher through the game," Parent said. "When he started to take off hitting the ball is when he started working his butt off behind the plate."
Outfielder Jiwan James, a 22d-round pick in 2007, has also started to blossom at Lakewood. After batting .230 through May, James has hit .315 the last two months. He extended his team-record hitting streak to 23 games Friday.
Lefthander Nicholas Hernandez, a 12th-round pick last year, opened the season 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA in eight starts before being shut down by a shoulder injury. He pitched two innings for the Gulf Coast League Phillies Tuesday, and Parent said he thinks he will soon rejoin Lakewood.
Jonathan Pettibone (3-4 with a 4.32 ERA) and Colby Shreve (5-4, 3.33 ERA) also have impressed Parent at times this season.
All that talent has also translated to victories for Lakewood, which won the first half of the South Atlantic League and, at 56-34, had the fourth-best record in minor-league baseball going into Friday's games.
"This team has had a number of late-inning comebacks," Parent said. "We're really athletic and we're even more energetic. We go out to play to beat the other team and that's what you want to see."