When the Philadelphia Phillies selected outfielder Domonic Brown in the 20th round of the 2006 First Year Player Draft, they had no idea just what kind of steal they made.
Originally from Florida, the Phillies were one of the only teams to keep track of the young high school star when he moved to Georgia. After watching him play, they were so convinced in his baseball potential that they paid him a $200k signing bonus to play baseball in their organization, rather than going to college to play football.
Six years later, it's safe to say the Phillies made a sound investment.
After a few solid years in the Phillies' lower minor league system, Brown really broke onto the scene in 2010, splitting time with the Reading Phillies and Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and putting up an incredible slash line of .332 / .391 / .582, with 20 home runs, 68 RBI, and 17 stolen bases, demonstrating all of baseball's "five tools." With production like that under his minor league belt, the Phillies couldn't hold him back much longer. When Shane Victorino hit the Disabled List in late July, the Phillies' promoted Brown to the big club.
He made his debut on July 28, 2010, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, before an ecstatic Phillies' crowd. Starting in right field, he put together an impressive debut, doubling to deep right in his first at-bat as the ball just missed going over the wall. When the day was done, Brown was two-for-three, with a double, a single, two RBIs and two runs scored to his name. Sadly, his season took a turn for the worst after that.
When Victorino returned from the Disabled List, Brown moved on to the Phillies' bench. Though the team considered sending him back to AAA, he was regarded a better option off of the bench than a struggling Greg Dobbs, who was ultimately sent packing.
In hindsight, it probably was not the best decision by the team. The left hander struggled to find a groove, posting a collective slash line of .210 / .257 / .355, with two home runs and 13 RBI in 70 plate appearances.
That's hardly a reason to sour on a prospect, however.
After all, when Ryan Howard made his debut with the Phillies in 2004, his "light tower power" was nowhere to be found, as he hit just two home runs in 19 games. It was much the same story for second baseman Chase Utley, who posted a slash line of .239 / .322 / .373, with two home runs for the Phillies in 43 games in 2003. However, that didn't stop the Phillies from trading their incumbent second baseman Placido Polanco to the Detriot Tigers to make room for him.
More often than not, that's the way things shake out for top prospects. Teams understand that transitioning to the Major League level and facing more advanced pitching is not simple.
That doesn't necessarily mean that their talent won't translate to the big leagues, as Howard and Utley have proved, along with a countless number of other top prospects. If teams can understand, we must do the same. Why then, should Brown begin the season in AAA?
When Jayson Werth hit free agency, the Phillies knew that there was little hope to re-sign him. He was, by far, the second best outfielder on the market, after Carl Crawford. After grooming Brown for so many years in the minor leagues, the Phillies hoped that Werth's replacement would come from within the organization and would replicate his production without a hitch.
After watching Brown be completely overwhelmed by major league pitching in 2010, the Phillies clearly weren't comfortable giving him the everyday job. They made an offer to Werth, and though it was a competitive offer, reportedly in line with what the Boston Red Sox offered the slugger, it was nowhere near what the Washington Nationals paid for the outfielder.
With a lack of other suitable options on the free agent market, it's now apparent that Werth's heir apparent will come from within the organization after all—whether or not that heir is Brown is another question entirely.
Brown's struggles at the major league level were certainly not from a lack of talent. As reviewed on MLB Network's Hot Stove, it was a lack of consistent playing time that really hurt Brown and for obvious reasons. Young players like him need to play everyday. Baseball is a sport of repetition, after all.
By the end of the season, sitting on the bench had influenced Brown's swing in a negative way. The way he held his hands, his lack of timing, his stride—several integral parts of his swing had been thrown out of whack. He may have been able to get away with several tiny flaws in AAA, but not in the majors, where every hitter is reviewed and studied and when game time comes around, attacked in a specific way.
While using Brown solely against right-handed pitching was a necessary cog in the machine that was the Phillies' bench, not exposing him to left-handed pitching is going to hurt him and Philadelphia in the future. Instead, they intend to use him again in a role that would see him face a majority of right-handed pitching—a platoon role, with right-handed hitter Ben Francisco.
Once again, the Phillies' thinking, for the present, is spot on. According to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, Francisco and Brown are the pre-Spring Training favorites to break camp with the big-league club in right field. It makes sense. Brown, who completely destroyed right-handed pitching in the minor leagues, would team up with Francisco, who posted a strong .901 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2010. It seems like a fantasy outfielder dreamed up in a video game, if both players slug to their potential. However, it is an extremely near-sighted move by the Phillies.
In order for that platoon to succeed, Brown will have had to have corrected his swing by Opening Day, and at this point, that seems highly unlikely. Like many young players, Brown made a trip to the Dominican Republic earlier in the offseason to play winter ball. He hit just .069, after collecting just two hits in 20 at-bats. Clearly, there are problems with his swing that the team is overlooking because of his potential. However, that isn't the same as saying Brown has flamed out as a top prospect. Things like this take time to correct. It's like breaking an ankle—walking again is a slow process, but we all know you can do it.
The Phillies, however, are cooking with a recipe for disaster.
There are two things you never want to force a young hitter into. One is changing his swing. A lot of times, slumps like these are a matter of comfort for a young hitter. It may take a month to fix, but eventually, he'll find his groove again. It's not going to take a drastic change to fix his swing. He just needs time.
The second is forcing a young hitter to correct his swing at the major league level. Despite what some people are led to believe, pitchers in the MLB are the elite of elites. These are men that are paid millions of dollars to expose a hitter's weakness and like lions lying in wait, will jump all over that weakness in due time. Veteran hitters are able to go through slumps and rebound because of the experience they've acquired. However, baseball can be an intimidating sport for a young man.
If the Phillies want to avoid a prospect catastrophe, they'll send Brown to AAA to begin the season, unless he can somehow correct his swing before Opening Day. Allowing him to play every day, against both right-handed and left-handed pitching, will be the key. If they allow him to play comfortably in AAA and call him up when he's at his hottest, avoiding slumps like those experienced in 2010 won't be a problem.
What about the "situation" in right field, you wonder?
There really never was a situation at all. An experienced left-handed hitter like Ross Gload would have no problem in a platoon. Used specifically against right-handed pitchers in 2010 as the team's top left-handed threat off the bench, Gload had an OPS of .818 against lefties.
Combined with Francisco's right-handed prowess, they combine for a one-year stopgap that isn't all too shabby. Who knows? As I mentioned in this piece, the Phillies may have a budding superstar on their hands in Francisco. That makes starting Brown in AAA a smart, easy decision for the Phillies. Even if they sign a lefty outfielder on the cheap, like Scott Podsednik, finding successful left-handed hitters isn't much of a challenge. On the other hand, finding a superstar is. With Brown in AAA, they'll have options. If the platoon fails, they'll have Brown to call on, and if it succeeds, Francisco will likely have played a large part in that success.
After all, with Raul Ibanez's contract expiring after the 2011 season, the Phillies will have multiple holes in their outfield to fill, and in a perfect world, Francisco and Brown will make for a potent pair of corner outfielders. It all starts with a simple decision this year—let Brown start in AAA.