ALLENTOWN, Pa. Its still kind of odd to see Domonic Brown dressed in a Lehigh Valley IronPigs uniform while standing in left field to shag flies during batting practice before Mondays doubleheader against Syracuse. After all, it wasnt too long ago that he was starting in right field for the first-place Philadelphia Phillies, who were all but running away with the NL East.
If it aint broke?
Whatever happens the rest of the way, the 2011 season is sizing up to be one that Brown could look back on when hes older and an established ballplayer and laugh off. To say its been an eventful year for the 23-year old top prospect is an understatement. Brown had a rough attempt in the Dominican Winter League, went hitless during the first week of Grapefruit League action and then broke the hamate bone in his wrist.
Then, after a short stop playing at Single A and Triple A, Brown went back to Philadelphia for another topsy-turvy stint with the Phillies. That ended with Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. summoning John Mayberry from Lehigh Valley and trading for Hunter Pence to replace Brown and Ben Francisco in the outfield.
Its been a tough year for Domonic, Amaro said. We sent him down after he did an adequate job and asked him to switch positions. It was a bit of a blow to him, I think. Its always a blow Ive been through it.
Brown batted .246 with five homers and a solid .335 on-base percentage this season with the Phillies. He batted .333 during his first month back with the team with hits in seven of his first 10 games. More importantly, manager Charlie Manuel gave Brown a chance to play every day or at least against most right-handers.
Still, there was something missing from Browns game during his 54 games in the big leagues this season, not to mention his 35 games last season, too. He had a game in Florida where he committed a costly error in right field and missed second base while legging out a would-be triple that cost the Phillies a victory.
In the minors, it was as if Brown was playing a different game than his opponents. He was the complete package with power befitting a more mature player, a lightning-quick first step with long, loping strides, and a throwing arm that was so good it had its own Twitter account.
We did a little bit of disservice to him
The Phillies got glimpses of those attributes during his two runs with the team, but it wasnt a smooth transition from the minors to the big leagues. Sometimes it seemed as if Brown was simply overmatched. Other times it seemed as if he was running in quicksand.
Added all up, Brown just wasnt ready.
We did a little bit of disservice to him, Amaro said. He hasnt had the development time needed.
Selfishly we brought him up because we needed a left-handed bat last year. This year he broke his hand, he started swinging well and we brought him to the big leagues because we werent getting the production in right field.
Brown doesnt necessarily see it that way, though he understands what Amaro is saying. Brown says he was ready to play in the big leagues. In fact, before the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence at the deadline, Brown was batting .296 with a .398 on-base percentage during July. Better yet, Brown was hitting well against left-handed pitchers.
It finally appeared that Brown was becoming a serviceable big leaguer, even though it was not-quite to the level that people expected from the top prospect everyone in baseball foresaw.
I really dont think I was rushed to the big leagues, Brown said. I think they did what they needed to do thats the business side of things. I think things worked out well. I ended up making the playoff roster last year. A lot of guys were saying I didnt do too well, but I was platooning and coming off the bench and doing what I had to do. It was a learning experience and its exactly what I take it as. This year is the same thing.
That doesnt mean he was pleased about going back to the minors, either.
Im not in charge, Brown said. I get mad sometimes, but Ruben and those guys know exactly what theyre doing. Thats my boss and they have their needs just like I have my needs, but its not about that. Its about the Philadelphia Phillies and that big picture.
Bumps in the road
That didnt make the blow of being sent back to the minors any less difficult to handle for Brown, though. Shortly after the trade for Pence was announced, Brown was apprehensive about the idea of going back to Allentown. Though he says he understood the decision, it did not make it any easier to swallow. As a result, he has struggled since rejoining the IronPigs, batting just .239 (21 for 88) with one homer and five RBIs that includes an 8-for-56 stretch immediately after his demotion.
However, in the 10 games headed into Mondays doubleheader, Brown went 11 for 34 with a 3-for-3 game in Indianapolis and a 4-for-5 showing in Louisville. Though he misplayed a fly ball into an RBI double in the first inning of the first game, Monday, the consensus is Brown is figuring out a few things.
Mostly, Brown is learning that struggles and failure are all a part of the game. After all, consider what Mike Schmidt did during his first, full big league season. Just 23 at the time, Schmidt hit just .196 and ended the year by going 0 for 25 and spent the off-season listening to his name mentioned in trade talks. All of this came after a season and a half in the minors where he shifted from shortstop to third base.
The next year Schmidt led the league in home runs for the first of eight times in his career.
This is not to say Brown, shifting from right to left field, is the next Mike Schmidt. But the kids tough go of it should not cause panic, either. Lehigh Valley manager and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has spent time talking and working with Brown about hitting and the mental approach to the game.
Based on the most recent results, Brown is getting it back.
Of course if anyone knows about the fast track to the majors its Sandberg. Drafted in the 20th round when he was 18, Sandberg was called up by the Phillies in 1981 when he was just 20. By the time he turned 21, Sandberg was in the big leagues to stay. Better yet, when he was 24 he already had an MVP award and helped take the Chicago Cubs to the playoffs.
Brown also was drafted in the 20th round by the Phillies and made it to the big leagues when he was 21. As of now, he doesnt know when hell get back.
He had to deal with that a little bit, Sandberg said. Hes had a lot of conversations here about playing and showing what he can do and continuing. Hes young, he has things to work on while hes here and thats kind of what Ive been talking to him about. He says hes gotten real nice support from his teammates and the guys in the locker room. This is a great atmosphere for him and its helped him a lot.
Said Brown: Its only making Domonic Brown that much of a better player. I just come out here and work, man, and stay humble.
In the interim, Brown is happy to try and help the IronPigs get into the International League playoffs. Heading into Mondays action the team was leading the wild-card race by two games and trailing in the division by a game. As far as a return to the big leagues goes, Brown says hes likely going to finish up the season in Allentown then await word from Amaro.
When the Phillies season ends, Brown is going fishing. No winter ball this year for a change.
This is my year to relax, Brown said. Im going fishing. Im going to work out Im going to do a lot of different things, but mostly Im going to make sure Im ready for spring training.
E-mail John R. Finger at firstname.lastname@example.org.