Will Domonic Brown finally fulfill potential?

Will Domonic Brown finally fulfill potential?

February 14, 2013, 2:00 pm
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CLEARWATER, Fla. – It is a new season. It is not a new story.

It has become an annual topic. Spring training begins, and invariably people wonder whether this will be the year that Domonic Brown – once so highly regarded – becomes a productive major-league player. Will he make the team and stay on the team and play regularly and well for the team? The questions are the same, and they never end.

It began anew on Thursday. Brown stood in front of his locker in the Bright House Field clubhouse and talked about his situation. He is a large man – 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, with thick arms the size of sturdy table legs – but the profile of his career has so far been smaller than anticipated.

After the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Brown as its fourth-best prospect. It made sense. That was a good year for Brown. The outfielder hit .327, with a .391 on-base percentage, a .589 slugging percentage and 20 home runs in 93 games between Double A Reading and Triple A Lehigh Valley.

Things have not gone nearly as well for him since. In 2011, he broke a bone in his thumb. Last year, after a solid spring training, he was felled by a knee injury. He said those issues have been the biggest impediment to his progress – that, and his lack of major-league plate appearances. To hear Brown tell it, he only needs to stay healthy and be given a regular opportunity to excel. Those are not simple accomplishments.

"When I get that opportunity,” Brown said, “when they give me that sink-or-swim opportunity like they did last year at the end of the year, [then] see what I'm capable of for four, five hundred at-bats.”

He mentioned those numbers several times, casually, as though you could pick up four or five hundred at-bats easily enough – maybe at Wawa while you’re grabbing coffee and a Tastykake to go with it. Considering his history, it is a lot to ask.

Though it feels like the Brown saga has droned on forever, he is only 25 years old. He has never played more than 56 games in any single major-league season. (By comparison, John Mayberry appeared in 149 games last year.) In 2012, Brown had 212 big-league at-bats – the most of his career. (By comparison, Mayberry stepped to the plate 441 times last year.) When asked to grade Brown so far, Charlie Manuel said he gets “an incomplete” because he hasn’t been on the field enough.

Brown’s point, that he has not been afforded the same opportunity as some other outfielders, is not completely invalid. But it is also something of a chicken-and-egg scenario for Brown. Injuries aside, has he not gotten the extended chance he craves because he hasn’t played all that well in the Majors, or has he not played all that well in the Majors because he hasn’t gotten the extended chance he craves?

In 492 career major-league plate appearances – a number that pushes right up against the 500 he said he wants in a single season – Brown has been underwhelming, hitting .236/.315/.388 with 12 home runs. Again, those stats were compiled in separate chunks, not all at once. Maybe, as Brown believes, he would play better if all those plate appearances came in succession. Or maybe not.

The principal problem for Brown this year, and it is no small thing, is that he isn’t the only outfielder fighting for time and games and at-bats. He isn’t the only one trying to prove himself worthy of having his name written onto the lineup card in permanent ink rather than erasable pencil.

By most accounts, the left field job figures to be a three-man struggle between Brown, Mayberry and Darin Ruf (who had three home runs, two doubles, a triple and 10 RBIs in 12 games last year as a rookie). It’s possible the Phils will use some combination of that trio in a platoon. Or one of them could emerge and put the gig in a Kung-fu grip. What’s certain is that, once again, Brown is in a position where he has to win over the Phillies' brass in order to win a spot on the team.

“D-Brown has definitely matured,” said Ryan Howard. “I think he gets it. He understands what it takes, what he needs to do in order to make this team ... I think he welcomes the opportunity to compete. To me, he’s taken a turn mentally to where he knows what he needs to do.”

Howard didn’t become a major-league starter until he was 26 years old. Chase Utley didn’t do it until he was 25. It’s possible that, like them, Brown will use his mid-20s as a catapult to launch himself to a permanent job. If that doesn’t happen, don’t be surprised if Brown – once considered untouchable – is mentioned in various trade rumors. At some point, he either needs to produce for the Phillies or he will be forced to try again somewhere else. And he knows it.

“I think there are a lot of other teams that still want me,” Brown said. “That’s the way it is in a big market. If you don’t perform, they get rid of you. I’m not gonna lie, I thought I’d be gone a long time ago for some of the guys they could have gotten for me.”

For a brief moment, it sounded as though Brown wasn’t so sure that the organization has much confidence left in him. Does he feel like he’s been treated unfairly?

“I’m not saying that," Brown insisted. “I’m just saying, hopefully I can get a full season under my belt.”

He’s been saying some semblance of that last sentence around this time for the last few years. If it doesn’t actually happen this season, it’s hard to imagine hearing him say it again 12 months from now. Teams, like dogs, can only spin in circles for so long before they give up and move on to less dizzying pursuits.