WASHINGTON -- The same night the Phillies were shut out for the seventh time in a span of 27 games, one of their former eighth-round draft picks made his introduction to Major League Baseball. A 93 mph fastball was deposited into Minute Maid Park's home bullpen, a bat was flipped and a rebuilding Houston Astros organization experienced a dose of validation.
Jon Singleton, the heralded first-base prospect who the Phillies surrendered in the 2011 trade that brought them Hunter Pence, is now 15 games into his budding big-league career. The first 50-some at-bats have done nothing to dispel the potential touted throughout his years in the minors. Possessing quick hands and a concise swing, the 6-2, 255-pound lefthanded slugger has already displayed the power teams crave in the middle of a lineup.
"The thump is crazy," Astros centerfielder Dexter Fowler said. "To be a hitter like that and just take the pitches the way he does is awesome."
Singleton's batting average on Tuesday dipped to .231, but his potent bat has already yielded four home runs. First came the eighth-inning shot in his June 3 debut in Houston for his first major league hit, which he followed five days later with a grand slam in Minnesota. His initial weeks with the Astros come on the heels of 14 homers in 195 at-bats for the Triple A Oklahoma City RedHawks to start the spring.
Singleton, 22, is almost three years removed from the oft-discussed deal that sent him, righthanded pitchers Jarred Cosart and Josh Zeid and outfielder Domingo Santana to the Astros. Drafted at age 17, Singleton carries with him experiences from Lakewood, Clearwater and more than 300 games with Astros farm teams. Regarding the 2011 trade, he understands it's part of the game.
"To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. It was my first time going through something like that," Singleton said this week at Nationals Park, where the Astros Wednesday night capped a two-game series. "So I just kind of went into it with eyes open and just came over here to play. Make it easy. Make it simple."
He's now a key member of the youngest clubhouse in baseball. With Jose Altuve, the 24-year-old second baseman who leads the majors in hits, the emergence of George Springer and a bevy of recent top draft picks developing in the minors, the Astros appear on the rise. They remain mired in last place in the American League West but entered Wednesday 32-40, on pace to snap their streak of three consecutive 100-loss seasons.
"I was able to just come here and just play ball, not focus on who's in front of me or who's behind me or anything like that," Singleton said. "Just have fun."
Singleton's path to the majors did not come devoid of struggles. He missed the first 50 games of last season after violating baseball's drug policy for a second time. This spring, he revealed to the Associated Press that he had struggled with marijuana addiction and spent a month in a rehab center. Overcoming what he has to reach the majors, Singleton said this week, "definitely makes all this more rewarding."
The day preceding his Houston debut, Singleton garnered more national attention. Although he had yet to face big-league pitching, the Astros inked him to a ground-breaking, five-year, $10 million contract with three years of club options that could increase his base salary to a reported $30 million in base salary. The first extension signed by a player with no major league service time, the contract, viewed by many as team-friendly given Singleton's potential, has been hotly debated by fans, the media and former players alike.
Since his promotion, Singleton has hit anywhere from third to sixth in the Astros lineup. He entered Wednesday night's series finale in Washington with 10 RBI and a .500 slugging percentage. A valuable trait he possesses is his ability to hit same-side pitching, eliminating the potential of a platoon. Singleton is actually faring much better against lefthanders so far, coming into Wednesday night hitting .308 compared to .205 against righthanders.
"I mean everyone knew, everyone saw the talent from Day 1," said Cosart, who broke into pro ball with Singleton in 2009. "I know the Phillies saw it. That's why he was part of the trade ...
"I think it's more his presence in the middle of the lineup that's given our offense a boost. With him and Springer, now we've got five, six guys in the middle of the order that can change the game with one swing of the bat."
Astros hitting coach John Mallee said he thinks Singleton projects as one of the top power-hitting first basemen in baseball. The coach added he's not surprised at the player's early power display, either.
"I believe in the talent. I believe in the player," said Mallee, a former Phillies minor leaguer. "I think the more he plays and learns how other teams are trying to pitch him, his ability to adjust back from when they adjust to him, is going to be key see how successful he's going to be over a period of time."
Coinciding with his promotion to the Astros, the Singleton trade has been revisited by fans in the Delaware Valley a bit more recently. When they acquired Pence, the Phillies were pushing the chips all-in to win the World Series, hoping the top hitter on that summer's trade market would be the middle-of-the-lineup, righthanded bat to put them over the top. That didn't happen, and the next July, with the team selling at the deadline, Pence was dealt to San Francisco, where he went on to win a World Series.
It's also worth noting that Singleton's position in Philadelphia is blocked by Ryan Howard until at least through the 2016 season. Even so, if the last couple weeks are any indication, the Astros first baseman of the future could remain a sore subject among Phillies fans for quite a while.
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