Domonic Brown or Darin Ruf.
It seems obvious that at least one of them, and most likely only one, will be in the Phillies starting lineup in Atlanta come April. The only question remaining is: which one?
Brown has been the Phillies' highest rated, most untouchable prospect (at least in their eyes) since the day Mike Schmidt retired. Okay, it hasn’t been that long, but sometimes it feels like it.
In recent seasons the Phillies have traded away several minor leaguers to acquire the game’s top talent—Cliff Lee, Roys Halladay and Oswalt, Hunter Pence—and in every instance they have held on to Brown, believing he is the one “can’t miss” prospect.
However, Brown has done nothing at the major league level to warrant those beliefs. In parts of three seasons, Brown’s performances across the board have been underwhelming to say the least. He has shown absolutely no ability to be an impact hitter at the major league level, and looks defensively inept.
Which brings us to Darin Ruf, the Phillies' minor league phenom of 2012.
Before this summer, hardly anyone in Philly had ever heard his named mentioned. That’s the way of life for a 25-year-old beginning his first season in Double A.
However, after breaking Ryan Howard’s single-season home run record at Reading, and then putting on a show for the big league club during the last week of the season, Darin Ruf is now a name everyone knows.
He’s being talked about by fans everywhere, and is spending his offseason attempting to learn a new position. With Howard—and his massive contract—firmly entrenched at first base, the only way Ruf cracks the Phillies lineup is in the outfield.
Unfortunately for Ruf (and Brown), if the Phillies are going to spend any big free-agent dollars this winter it will likely be in the outfield. And with several other major league outfielders either under contract or club control through at least 2013, there will be numerous bodies to fill positions on the field.
With three front-line starting pitchers, the highest paid reliever in the history of the game, and an aging roster, it’s doubtful the Phillies will enter next season with essentially two rookies in their outfield (Brown is not a rookie per se, but he’s as close to an unknown as one can get).
One will play, one won’t. It’s as simple as that. And the choice between the two will logically come down to Domonic Brown playing and Darin Ruf heading to Lehigh Valley.
Based on what the two players have shown—both in the minor leagues and in brief auditions with the Phillies—some might argue that Ruf is the better player. And he may very well be. Ruf could turn into an adequate outfielder who slugs enough home runs to make up for any defensive laps, and Brown could be a complete major league bust.
(Although a 20th round draft pick even reaching the major leagues should eliminate “complete bust” from his description; he’s already accomplished more than could realistically have been expected.)
However, if the Phillies are intent on starting one—and that seems to be the way they’re heading—giving Domonic Brown the opportunity makes the most sense. He might not be the better player—not now, not ever—but the Phillies have a lot more invested in Brown than they do Ruf, and have reached the point of no return.
Brown is (or should be) out of minor league options. Returning him to Triple A once more would require exposing him to waivers and risk losing him for nothing. That is not the case with Darin Ruf, who can be optioned to the minor leagues without fear in both 2013 and 2014.
Even if the rules didn’t prevent the Phillies from sending Brown back to the minor leagues, doing so would make little sense. His value—good or bad—will only be realized at the major league level. The Phillies gain nothing from sending him to Triple A, and Brown would undoubtedly lose value with yet another minor league season.
Sending Darin Ruf to Lehigh Valley does not diminish his value. In fact, going to Triple A and proving he can handle advanced pitching and playing the outfield might increase his worth within the organization and as a potential trade chip. If Ruf continues his assault on minor league pitching he’ll be on his way to the majors soon enough.
Many fans—and possibly team officials—may be tired of waiting for Brown’s talent to emerge, and may be enamored with Darin Ruf’s potential, but for the long-term health of the franchise Domonic Brown needs one more chance. It’s now or never for Brown. Ruf will have another opportunity down the line—possibly as early as June or July.