I wanted to say how nice it’s been to get along with the readership over the past few weeks, a state of affairs I’d chalk up to my being neither informative nor persuasive since the first week in September or so. Anyway, I wanted to get that out there, because I’m back to my old ways. I went into this offseason with almost no expectations. This offseason, my wish was really more that the Phillies do nothing rather than do something. I was prepared to make peace with whatever the Phillies did this offseason, provided the following things happened:
- The Phillies don’t offer arbitration to Raul Ibanez.
- The Phillies don’t sign any free agent reliever (including Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson) to any contract with a total value of more than $5 million.
- The Phillies commit to getting Domonic Brown 400 or more major league plate appearances in 2012, preferably as the every day left fielder, but at least in some sort of platoon arrangement with John Mayberry.
Then Ruben Amaro announced that the Phillies wanted to get Brown a full season at AAA before bringing him up to the majors. I was absolutely mystified by this decision, though, judging by Ruben Amaro’s bizarre insistence on giving anyone but Brown a chance to play at the major league level in 2011, I can’t say I was surprised. Ever since he refused to include Brown in any sort of trade for Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay back in 2009, Amaro has, like Hamlet tormenting Claudius, seemed to take some sort of perverse pleasure in treating the Phillies’ top hitting prospect since Chase Utley like a yo-yo, tossing and spinning, and otherwise screwing with Brown for no reason other than he can.
Maybe there’s some sort of plan for Brown that the public is not privy to, and this is part of it. Maybe he’s being kept in the minors because there’s a flaw in his game that the Phillies are aware of but has escaped the eye of the extremely astute talent evaluators at ESPN and Baseball America. If that’s the case, maybe he’s being hidden so as not to harm his trade value. But I find that hard to believe.
I think I actually want this more than 400 plate appearances for the Domonator: to know what, exactly, that plan is.
Here’s are some of the arguments for keeping Brown in the minors, or at least the best ones I’ve heard:
- He’s a prospect, and therefore an unknown quantity.
- He’s bad defensively and doesn’t hustle.
- The Phillies can’t afford to waste at-bats on someone who might not produce.
- He’s been given a chance already and washed out.
Let’s unpack those one-by-one:
He’s a prospect, and therefore an unknown quantity.
Yes. I grant you this. But here’s what I do know about Brown: he’s hit .294/.375/.459 in 2,000 minor league plate appearances, including .303/.374/.546 in 433 AA plate appearances and .298/.390/.453 in 292 AAA plate appearances. Certainly, he hasn’t proven that he can hit major league pitching at these rates, but the logic of using that as a justification for sending him back down to AAA escapes me–regardless of what you think of Brown, how is he going to prove he can hit major league pitching when he only ever faces minor league pitching?
Brown is not a known quantity, for sure, but it’s best to consider prospects in terms of likelihood. It’s eminently possible that Brown, given the right environment, could grow into a Ken Griffey Jr. clone. In moments where I’ve been blinded by my own exuberance, I’ve said as much, but while Brown turning into Griffey is possible, it’s certainly not likely. It’s also possible that he could turn into the next Billy Ashley, but it’s not necessarily likely.
Let’s turn to what the folks at Baseball America say about him: going into 2010, he was their No. 15 prospect. Here’s the complete list of other outfielders in the top 20: Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Desmond Jennings, and Logan Morrison, all of whom have turned out to be perfectly acceptable major leaguers, given the chance. So while Brown isn’t a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination, the minor league stats suggest that he’s ready, and people who tend to rate good major league players highly as prospects seem to think well of Brown. Doesn’t that at least suggest he merits a chance?
He’s bad defensively, and doesn’t hustle.
Go ahead, write him off because he didn’t go full-tilt after a fly ball once. Certainly no team has ever prospered in spite of indifferent defense from its left fielder. Certainly not Manny Ramirez‘s Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, or Los Angeles Dodgers teams, or Ted Williams’ Red Sox teams of the 1940s and 1950s. Or the 2008 Phillies, with Pat Burrell. Or even the mid-90s Braves, with Ryan Klesko. Or the 1970s and 1980s Phillies, with Greg Luzinski.
And Brown is not a nutcase like Ramirez, or a grouch like Williams, or even a klutz or a clod like Burrell, Klesko, and Luzinski. He’s a young enough player that he can still be taught to play defense, and a good enough athlete to get by passably if he doesn’t.
And that’s even assuming he’s a bad fielder: FanGraphs had him at -7 fielding runs in 451 innings in 2011, which is pretty bad. But UZR, the fielding statistic FanGraphs uses in WAR, takes a full season to stabilize, sometimes more. In terms of small samples, 451 innings is the blink of an eye when judging advanced fielding metrics, particularly for an outfielder. But as you’ll see, it’s tough to believe the argument that Brown’s defense kept him out of the lineup in 2011.
The Phillies can’t afford to waste at-bats on someone who might not produce
This is just empirically untrue. In 2011, the Phillies paid $11.5 million to literally the worst defensive player in the National League so he could post a .289 OBP in a corner outfield position. The Phillies gave $1.6 million to a player so broken-down he could barely run the bases, and sent him to the plate 118 times, where he posted a .266 wOBA. The Phillies gave 234 plate appearances to a player with a .540 OPS, who had only 10 extra-base hits in those 234 times to the plate. The Phillies are either absurdly stupid or pathologically unconcerned with their offensive production, because that’s the only explanation for the team with the second-highest payroll in baseball to give 927 plate appearances to Ross Gload, Raul Ibanez, and Michael Martinez.
Phillies management can’t be that oblivious, because they won 102 games in 2011, no small feat even before considering that the Phillies, by playing Gload, Ibanez, and Martinez, suffered the equivalent of a season and a third’s worth of Eric Bruntlett in their lineup. So if there’s any logic whatsoever to the burial of Domonic Brown, the alternative must be true: the Phillies don’t care if their left fielder doesn’t hit.
Brown, in 2011, posted a .245/.333/.391 line in 210 plate appearances. His OBP was 44 points higher than Ibanez’s. His OPS was 122 points higher than Ross Gload’s. Why did they get the playing time? Oh, yeah, and Domonic Brown was 23 years old for most of the season–it stands to reason that a 23-year-old would get better with more repetition, while Ibanez (39), Gload (35), and Martinez (29), will never be better than what they are now.
This is the most maddening part of the Domonic Brown Saga for me–people who want him buried in favor of Ibanez think that playing Brown would have hurt the team. This is almost certainly not true. Even if Brown never improves one iota from the player he is today, he was still better in 2011 than Ibanez was. The relationship between developing for the future and playing to win in the present does not need to be adversarial, and would not have been, in this case.
He’s been given a chance already and washed out
I don’t want people who are willing to write off a player after 280 intermittent major-league plate appearances (all but one before the player’s 24th birthday, and many of them marred, by the way, by an injury that can sap a player’s power for a year) to be anywhere near controlling my favorite team. If you’re willing to write off Brown now, consider the following: Roy Halladay, aged 23, through 231 major-league innings, was 13-14 with a 5.77 ERA and a WHIP of 1.71. Write him off. Mike Schmidt, aged 23, through his first full major-league season, had a .197 career batting average and a .690 OPS. Write him off too.
How can you possibly know anything about Domonic Brown as a major-league player after 280 plate appearances, most of which came as a pinch-hitter after rotting on the bench for days? Here’s all that we know, for certain: Brown has the skills to be called one of the top prospects in the minor leagues, and in limited major-league duty, he was slightly better than Raul Ibanez, who got 575 plate appearances from the Phillies in 2011.
That warrants an extended look and a long leash in the major leagues in 2012, and unless the Phillies have some personnel move up their sleeve, or Brown has some issue they’re not telling us about, there’s no logical reason–none whatsoever–not to give that to him. So what’s the plan?