Phillies, Domonic Brown Hope Slowing Down Can Speed Up His Career
PHILADELPHIA—Domonic Brown's play in a spring training game against the Astros on March 13 showed why the Phillies remain high on him. It also showed why he's back in the minors.
Facing righthanded reliever Enerio Del Rosario in a tie game in the top of the 10th inning, Brown exploded on a first-pitch fastball and crushed a long, line-drive home run to right.
It was the type of swing—and result—that put the 24-year-old outfielder on everyone's all-prospect team for several years and had scouts from the Florida State League to the International League pointing at their chests and saying, "For me, he's an all-star."
A few innings before that impressive March home run, however, Brown showed why some have come to question whether he'll ever become that all-star.
Playing left field, he missed a cutoff man on a throw and was charged with an error that led to a run in the seventh inning. An inning later, he misplayed a catchable line drive into a double. The misplay came in Brown's second game back from a week spent recovering from a jammed left thumb, suffered when he dove for a ball after making a bad read off the bat.
These defensive shortcomings, visible for some time, along with an overall need to fine-tune his game, are the reasons Phillies officials had their minds made up even before spring training that Brown would go to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to get back on a developmental track far away from the bright lights and big expectations of Philadelphia. Brown, often compared to Darryl Strawberry for his size—he's now 6-foot-5 and a muscular 222 pounds—had stints in the majors in 2010 and 2011. And while they weren't disastrous, they weren't ideal, either.
"We did a little bit of a disservice to him," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last September. "He hadn't had the development time needed."
Even with the Phillies off to a slow start in 2012 and struggling for offense, Amaro hopes to stick to his plan and let Brown get plenty of reps at Triple-A, a level where he had played in just 69 games before 2012. By the end of the season, the Phillies hope to know exactly what they have in Brown. Maybe he ends up as a candidate for a change of scenery, or maybe a candidate to contribute in Philadelphia. It's time to find out.
"Our job is to make sure when he comes to the big leagues the next time it is for good, as a major league-ready player," Amaro said. "Time and circumstance can change things, but that's the goal."
Brought Up And Sent Down
Time and circumstance led the Phillies to pluck Brown from Lehigh Valley in 2010 and 2011 when injuries and ineffectiveness hit the big league outfield. Brown hit just .210/.257/.355 in 62 at-bats in 2010. In 2011, he came to camp trying to win a job in right field. He struggled badly at the plate while making a series of adjustments with the positioning of his hands, then he broke a bone in his hand. He finally got going at Triple-A and made it back to the big leagues in late May when the Phillies were scuffling for runs. Brown got everyday reps in right field, and though he held his own, hitting .245/.333/.391 in 184 at-bats, his defense was shaky and he wasn't productive enough offensively for a team with World Series expectations.
"We brought him up because we had a need at the big league level and didn't really have anyone else we felt comfortable with," Amaro said. "We thought he could continue to develop at the big league level, but eventually we needed a difference maker."
In need of a prominent bat to hit behind Ryan Howard, Amaro traded four prospects—including hard-hitting first baseman Jonathan Singleton, power-armed righthander Jarred Cosart and high-ceiling outfielder Domingo Santana—to the Astros for Hunter Pence. The trade would never have happened if Brown had been a difference maker in 2011.
Will Brown ever be the difference maker he was projected to be? Amaro thinks he will be, and he hopes it happens in a year. The Phillies have two outfielders approaching free agency—Shane Victorino after this season and Pence after 2013—and Amaro said, "Domonic is still a very important element of what we're trying to do and that's get younger with our position players."
The Pence trade added another challenge to Brown's development as he made the switch from right field to left. Defense, particularly reads and routes, and sometimes simply making smooth catches, remains his biggest deficiency.
"I don't even like talking about his defense because I'm sure he thinks about it enough," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He knows he has to improve. If he makes mistakes, he makes mistakes. We just have to let him play."
Brown has worked hard on his defense and believes the results will come. "I'm not even worried about it because I know I'll get better the more I play there," he said.
Manuel believes Brown also needs to improve in his overall understanding of the game and how to play it at the big league level. That includes baserunning.
"The game up here travels much faster," Manuel said. "From a hitting standpoint, I don't think Domonic was rushed. In some ways I think he could hold his own. From a defensive standpoint and in terms of overall game, he needs to be more of a student and learn how to play."
Brown was a football and baseball player when the Phillies selected him out of Redan (Ga.) High in the 20th round of 2006 draft. His size and whip-like lefthanded swing drew comparisons to Strawberry. While he may never become Strawberry, Brown can be a productive major league hitter, Manuel says. Two rival scouts who have seen Brown a lot echoed that thinking. There is much to like in that bat—if it all comes together.
"He has all the tools," Manuel said. "Big power, good hand-eye coordination, he puts the ball in play. He had a better swing in spring training. His balance has improved. I've always said he's going to be a good hitter and when he puts his entire game together he'll be a good big league player."
Though his return to Lehigh Valley seemed planned before spring training, Brown came to camp with the right attitude. He said he was not at peace with going to Triple-A, that he wanted to win a job. When the demotion came, he took it with the right attitude. There has never been a question about his attitude or willingness to work.
"I'm going to go down there and play hard," he said. "I believe if you play hard and do things the right way, great things are going to happen. If you think great, you're going to be great. We'll see what happens."
Brown wasn't great in his brief stints in Philadelphia, but the Phillies haven't given up on him. Perhaps the best indicator of that is the team's decision to take a step back and invest more time in his development.
"People forget it takes time sometimes," Amaro said. "It takes an extraordinary player to come to the big leagues right out of the chute at a young age and be an everyday player. It doesn't happen often. Evan Longoria did it, but Chase Utley and Ryan Howard didn't. It didn't happen to them until it was time for them to be big league players, and when it was time they were very good ones.
"We believe Domonic is a good player and will be a good player. I have every confidence that he will have a great year and be able to help us if not this year then in 2013."