Gary Brown Rights The Ship In Richmond

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The Double-A Eastern League this season may not feature a pitcher with a hammer breaking ball or a future 30-homer masher, but it has been home to some of the most dynamic center-field prospects in the game.  

Exhibit A: Richmond's Gary Brown, who has recovered from an early-season funk to hit .336/.388/.502 (77-for-229) with 21 doubles and five homers in his last 54 games. Only Trenton's David Adams and Altoona's Brock Holt have higher averages in that span, and with 15 stolen bases in 20 tries Brown has vaulted to a second-place standing in the league with 31.

"Since early June he's absolutely turned it on," Richmond manager Dave Machemer said. "He looks like a slight kid until you see him up close and you see he's wiry strong, that he can run and that he's got some pop."

The 24th pick in the 2010 draft by the Giants, Brown relied on his own natural feel for hitting during his full-season debut in the California League last year, batting .336/.407/.519 for high Class A San Jose and established a franchise record with 188 hits. But the 23-year-old Brown slumped out of the gate this season, batting .232/.312/.301 in 246 at-bats through June 12, as he moved from an extreme hitter's league to Richmond's cavernous yard, The Diamond.

Machemer credits a mechanical adjustment with turning Brown's season around. "We've worked with him on keeping his front side more resistant," the manager said, "because he had a tendency to open up too much with his front foot and leak out to his front side."

That one change added balance to his swing and dozens of points to his batting average, but neither hitting nor stealing bases may be Brown's best attribute.

"When you watch this guy on a daily basis you realize that he's an absolute Houdini in center field," Machemer said. "He has made catches this year where there was no chance of catching ball. Balls in the gap, over his head, coming in—nobody in this league can play center field like this guy.

"He has easy 65 range (on the 20-80 scouting scale) and maybe even 70."

Erie manager Chris Cron concurs. "When you coach a lot of third base," he said, "you get a sense for when a ball is an out, a hit or a no-doubt hit. I've seen more than one no-doubter hit out there, and sure enough there's Brown running to the gap to catch the ball on a regularly routine basis."

Center Fielders Aplenty

Nearly all of the Eastern League's 12 teams this season has featured a tooled-up prospect who can handle the defensive demands of center field in the big leagues. Here we add 11 more names to the mix, combining with Brown to give the EL a dozen center fielders to monitor. League managers voted Brown the Fastest Baserunner and Best Defensive Outfielder in our annual Best Tools survey, and they nominated him for Most Exciting Player.

Abe Almonte, Trenton (Yankees)
Bats: Both. Age: 23.
Best Tools Wins: Best Baserunner. Nominations: Best Defensive Outfielder.

Machemer summed up Almonte's biggest asset nicely. "This guy turns baserunning into a science," he said. "He's very astute at picking up signs, and he never does anything wrong on the bases. The great thing is he brings that to every game." When he's not terrorizing opposing defenses, Almonte shows a classic leadoff, small-ball approach, seldom selling out for power while keying into the situational aspects of hitting, such as bunting and moving runners. He ranks third in the EL with 30 steals.

Jackie Bradley, Portland (Red Sox)
Bats: Left. Age: 22.
Best Tools Nominations: Best Batting Prospect, Best Defensive Outfielder, Most Exciting Player.

Though he's not a blazing-fast runner, Bradley has the instincts to profile as a plus defender and also a basestealing threat. He led the minors in on-base percentage while with high Class A Salem this season, though he has fallen back to the pack since joining Portland. Regardless, his feel for the zone gives him a chance to hit at the top of an order.

Matt den Dekker, Binghamton (Mets)
Bats: Left. Age: 25.
Best Tools Nominations: Best Strike-Zone Judgment.

Den Dekker probably swings and misses too much to bat at the top of a lineup, but he's a gifted center fielder who flashes occasional plus power and has the speed underway to collect extra bases on balls hit in the gap.

Tyson Gillies, Reading (Phillies)
Bats: Left. Age: 23.

Slowed by hamstring issues since joining the Phillies organization in the Cliff Lee deal with the Mariners, Gillies has the type of athleticism that will buy him multiple opportunities to put his speed-oriented game to good use. He knows his game doesn't revolve around power, and has the type of bat speed and contact skills to hit at the top of the order.

Robbie Grossman, Altoona (Pirates)
Bats: Both. Age: 22.
Best Tools Wins: Best Strike-Zone Judgment.

Acquired by the Astros in the deal that sent Wandy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh, Grossman still ranked third in the EL with 59 walks nearly three weeks after switching organizations. A switch-hitter who waits for his pitch and hits to all fields, he profiles as, at worst, a top-notch reserve outfielder.

Aaron Hicks, New Britain (Twins)
Bats: Both. Age: 22.
Best Tools Nominations: Fastest Baserunner, Best Defensive Outfielder.

A disciplined hitter who runs and throws well, Hicks already has established career highs in homers and steals this season in his Double-A breakthrough. The 2008 first-rounder could team with Denard Span and Ben Revere next season to give the Twins the fastest outfield in the big leagues. A natural righty hitter, Hicks has ironed out his lefthanded swing this season, posting an .811 OPS after notching a .705 mark last year and a .722 in 2010.

"Hicks can beat you in five different ways," New Britain manager Jeff Smith said. "He can go get it in center field; he's got a strong, accurate arm; and he can beat you with a home run or a bunt. He's aggressive stealing bases, but you wouldn't know he's faster than 90 percent of guys in this league because of his long, smooth stride."

Jiwan James, Reading (Phillies)
Bats: Both. Age: 23.

Scouts love James' athleticism and wicked bat speed, but a wild hitting approach (20 walks, 103 strikeouts) have formed a chasm between his tools and on-field performance this season.

Juan Lagares, Binghamton (Mets)
Bats: Right. Age: 23.
Best Tools Nominations: Best Defensive Outfielder, Best Outfield Arm.

Lagares began his pro career at shortstop before moving to the outfield full-time in 2009. He hit .349 last year to zoom up prospect lists, but a decrease in power and good fortune on balls in play this season has brought him back to earth. Still, Lagares does enough across the board to profile as at least a big league reserve.

Jake Marisnick, New Hampshire (Blue Jays)
Bats: Right. Age: 21.

The youngest player on this list, Marisnick also has a chance to one day be the best. He's straddling the Mendoza Line in Double-A now, but evaluators love his balanced swing and power to all fields and could see plus production down the line. Throw in plus range, speed and basestealing acumen and Marisnick is the real deal.

Melky Mesa, Trenton (Yankees)
Bats: Right. Age: 25.
Best Tools Nominations: Best Defensive Outfielder, Best Outfield Arm, Most Exciting Player.

Mesa took a long time to get to this point, spending five years in short-season ball, but his maturation as a hitter translated into a career-low strikeout rate (20 percent of plate appearances) and an August bump to Triple-A. He's a power/speed threat who batted .277/.344/.464 with 14 homers in 88 games in his repeat of Double-A. EL managers lauded his range and arm strength, and some scouts think Mesa could be a big league regular.

Eury Perez, Harrisburg (Nationals)
Bats: Right. Age: 22.
Best Tools Nominations: Fastest Baserunner, Best Defensive Outfielder, Most Exciting Player.

Prior to his promotion to Triple-A, Perez ran neck-and-neck with Abe Almonte and Harrisburg second baseman Jeff Kobernus for the distinction of fastest player in the EL. He has virtually zero power projection and only slightly more plate patience, but he's a spray hitter who knows how to bunt and steal bases in high-leverage spots.