What can Brown do for Phillies? Despite prospect pedigree, not much
Amid a long-overdue rebuilding effort, the Phillies’ lineup is a curious blend of aging stars, veteran retreads and unfamiliar names. One player missing thus far is Domonic Brown, who began the year on the disabled list due to tendinitis in his left Achilles. On Tuesday, Brown was activated and immediately optioned to Triple A Lehigh Valley, where he'll remain indefinitely until he proves his readiness. It's the latest turn in the career of the 27-year-old flychaser, a former can't-miss prospect who, in marked contrast to many of his peers, has flopped.
Coming off an abysmal .235/.285/.349 showing in 512 plate appearances last year, Brown had gone just 5-for-36 with one extra-base hit during a nine-game rehab stint in the minors. Via the Philadelphia Inquirer, manager Ryne Sandberg said on Tuesday that the extended Triple A stay was for Brown "to really work on some things and to get right." Meanwhile, the Phillies (8–13) are going forth with an outfield consisting of light-hitting Ben Revere in left, Rule 5 pick/converted second baseman Odubel Herrera in center, and well-traveled Jeff Francoeur in right, with reclamation project Grady Sizemore in reserve. Only Herrera (.297/.342/.432 for a 116 OPS+ in 80 PA) has registered a pulse at the plate; the unit as a whole is batting .215/.265/.329, which looks Ruth-ian compared to the sub-Mendoza Line showings of Chase Utley (.119/.195/.209) and Ryan Howard (.188/.246/.375).
Brown was drafted in the 20th round in 2006 out of a Stone Mountain, Ga., high school, though that placement was not indicative of his talents. He had committed to playing football and baseball at the University of Miami, which suppressed his stock, but the Phillies were undeterred. Via the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2009, when Brown's standardized test scores fell short of NCAA requirements, Philadelphia was able to sign him for a $200,000 bonus. While scouts salivated over his athleticism and raw power—commonly comparing him to a young Darryl Strawberry—the team brought him through the minors slowly. BA ranked him as the Phillies' top prospect coming into '09, and No. 48 among their top 100.
By 2011, on the strength of a .327/.391/.589 showing in 93 games split between Double and Triple A after returning from surgery to repair a broken hamate, Brown ranked fourth on BA's list, a star-studded one topped by Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, with Aroldis Chapman (7), Freddie Freeman (17), Manny Machado (14) and Chris Sale (20) as some of the now-familiar names on the list. In all, 26 of BA's top 30 from that year have reached the majors, 11 (including Brown) have earned All-Star honors, and four (Trout, Harper, Wil Myers and Jeremy Hellickson) have won Rookie of the Year awards.
(Note that I’m not trying to pick on BA here. The top five prospects on their list were an exact match with those on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 for the same year, and the top 25 from the latter list can all be found within BA’s top 30, with only minor discrepancies in the rankings.)
Via Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, Brown has been the least valuable of the 26 to reach the majors, with a total of -1.0 WAR in 430 major league games spread over five seasons. Injuries, subpar defense and the Phillies' taste for older players like Raul Ibanez and Juan Pierre are among the obstacles that have been thrown in his path, but at the end of the day, Brown hasn't hit. Even including his 2013 All-Star campaign (.272/.324/.494 with 27 homers and 2.1 WAR), his career line of .248/.308/.412 in 1,544 PA equates to a 98 OPS+—a subpar major league hitter, particularly for an offense-first position. Last year's 77 OPS+ ranked as the third-worst of any outfielder who qualified for the batting title (502 PA) behind Allen Craig (66) and Melvin Upton (75). Among qualifiers, only infielders Matt Dominguez and Nick Castellanos outdid his -1.4 WAR. Ouch.
It's worth looking back at the upper reaches of that BA Top 100 Prospects list, as it forms a veritable Who's Who of twenty-something talent. Here they are ranked by total WAR (the team listed is the one that drafted them):
|player||position||team||2015 age||war||ba 100 rank|
|Chris Sale||SP||White Sox||26||23.6||20|
|Kyle Drabek||SP||Blue Jays||27||-0.1||29|
It's worth noting that the BA rankings are a snapshot in time, a reflection of the general consensus inside the game with regards to players who at the time were not necessarily on equal footing, development-wise. Harper, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, was 18 years old, the second-youngest player in the top 30 behind Yankees catching prospect Gary Sanchez (seven weeks younger, ranked 30th) and had yet to play a regular-season professional game, while Sale, the 13th pick of that draft, had 23 1/3 innings of big league relief under his belt. Jennings, the oldest of the bunch, had five minor league seasons under his belt and had already appeared on three previous BA lists (topping out at sixth in '10).
Trout is the runaway leader in terms of WAR, a showing all the more remarkable given his age; among that top 30, only Sanchez, Harper, Machado and Pirates pitching prospect Jameson Taillon (drafted second after Harper, ranked 11th) are younger. Four years later, the Angels' phenom has an AL MVP award and two runner-up finishes under his belt, and both he and Freeman, the second-most productive position player, have converted their major league success into nine-figure, long-term deals. Machado and Harper have together accumulated less WAR than Trout, though injuries have taken bites out of their short careers; even so, they're in Hall of Fame-caliber company when their production is put in context with their ages. Jennings and Belt have become solid regulars, with Ackley and Hosmer having intermittent success and Gordon coming off a breakout season.
Speaking of Hosmer, the Royals topped BA's organizational rankings that year on the strength of a record-setting bumper crop of nine prospects among the top 100. Along with three position players (Moustakas and Myers being the others), there were yet-to-reach lefty pitchers John Lamb (18th) and Mike Montgomery (19th) in the top 30. Lower down the list were Christian Colon (51st), Danny Duffy (68th), Jake Odorizzi (69th) and lefty Chris Dwyer (83rd). They haven't all panned out, but Hosmer, Moustakas and Duffy played key roles for the 2014 AL champions, and Myers, Montgomery and Odorizzi were sent to the Rays in the franchise-turning blockbuster that brought James Shields to Kansas City.
On the pitching side, Sale—with three top-four finishes in pitching WAR—has been by far the most successful, though Teheran, Archer and Pineda have shown signs of emerging as front-of-the-rotation talents, and Miller and Moore are making their marks. Chapman is one of the game's top closers, and Britton has turned into a very good one after struggling in the rotation. Meanwhile, Taillon, Drabek, Moore, Perez and Lamb have all been set back by Tommy John surgery, Drabek for the second time. Montgomery hasn't been the same since elbow problems in 2010, and Pineda has been limited to 17 mostly-promising starts since his rookie season in '11 due to a torn labrum and other shoulder woes. Turner, who made a respectable 20-start showing with the Marlins in '13, has fallen apart since an April 2014 shoulder strain. Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year, has been trying to get his career back on track since bone spurs cut into his effectiveness in '13 and cost him a chunk of the following season.
Another Rookie of the Year, 2013 AL winner Myers, is attempting to rebound from an difficult '14 season in which he missed 70 games due to a right wrist fracture and hit just .222/.294/.320 en route to -0.9 WAR. Given that he's only 24 years old, it's too early to label him a bust; traded to the Padres in December—the second time he's been dealt in in his young career—he's off to a solid start as San Diego's centerfielder, hitting .287/.309/.489.
As one of the oldest players on the list and one no longer young enough to have the benefit of the doubt with regards to youth, Brown rates among the list's biggest busts, though the player directly above him in the 2011 rankings, Jesus Montero, may be the most notorious. After hitting .328/.406/.590 with four homers in 69 PA for the Yankees in September 2011, he was dealt to the Mariners in a deal that centered around Pineda in January 2012. He ranked sixth on BA's prospect list that spring, his third year in the top 10, but made a mediocre offensive showing (.260/.298/.386) for the M’s while playing his way out from behind the plate.
By late May 2013, Montero was back in the minors for the purposes of learning first base and shoring up his swing. Later that year, he drew a 50-game suspension for his links to the Biogenesis clinic, and by last summer, he had turned into an organizational punchline, showing up to spring training a reported 40 pounds overweight and later getting into an altercation with a team scout who allegedly taunted him with an ice cream sandwich. He played in just six major league games last season, spending the rest of 2014 at Triple A Tacoma. He's back there this year, in better shape and playing first while trying to work back into the organization's good graces.
If Brown is healthy, he should be able to convince the Phillies (or some other team) that he belongs in the majors sooner rather than later, if not as an everyday player then at least as some team’s lefty DH option (he’s hit just .229/.277/.352 against southpaws). While his career hasn't panned out as planned, it's too early to write him off completely, but he's got considerable work to do to get back on track.