Domonic Brown and the dangers of love

Domonic Brown first reached the majors in 2010, but he's now struggling in Triple-A. G Fiume/Getty Images

It was the swing that did it for me, I think.

If there was one thing that the Phillies did well from 2000 to 2005 or so, it was acquiring guys with distinctive swings. There was Ryan Howard’s looping attack, a beautiful left-handed power stroke that recalled Ken Griffey Jr., who had the sweetest swing of any player I’d ever seen. There was Pat Burrell’s long, deliberate swing, one I best remember ending with The Bat on one knee after having chased a two-strike breaking ball. But it produced its share of home runs as well -- the third-most in team history when he left the team in 2008. There was Chase Utley, whose bat went from vertical to horizontal through the strike zone and vertical again on the follow-through with the suddenness and violence of a mousetrap.

But Domonic Brown was nothing like them. When he came up to the majors in 2010, I was mesmerized by his swing. It was broadly the same type of graceful left-handed motion that won Howard the MVP award in 2006, but with a violence the likes of which I hadn’t seen before.

When I was in elementary school, I remember playing with rubber bands a lot. Elementary school kids do this because they’re easily amused and school can be boring when you’re 8 years old and there are no fighter jets or dinosaurs to be seen. One favorite rubber band game of mine was to loop the rubber band around a pencil, then turn the pencil until the rubber band was twisted up. When you let the pencil go, it spins like a propeller as the rubber band unravels.

Domonic Brown’s swing is like that spinning pencil -- a visible knot of potential energy that unwinds all at once in a motion of incredible chaos and violence. Brown doesn’t look like the best athlete in uniform; sure, he’s tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, but is skinnier than it seems your typical power hitter ought to be, or at least, Griffey was.

* * * *

In 2006, the Phillies drafted two high school players -- pitcher Kyle Drabek in the first round, 18th overall, and Brown in the 20th round, 607th overall -- who would, three years later, become the cornerstone of their farm system.

We’re entering a part of the baseball calendar where, between the draft and the trade deadline, fans become acutely aware of their teams’ minor league assets. For Phillies fans, never has that been more true than in 2009, particularly concerning Brown and Drabek. Prospects are unpredictable, and the margin between superstardom and going home to sell insurance for these players can be paper-thin. In spite of this mystery, or, in all probability, because of it, baseball fans set great store in their teams’ minor-league prospects, monitoring their progress and developing great expectations for their futures.

This is the result.

* * * *

Brown first came to public attention in the summer of 2009, when his name was mentioned as potential compensation for a Roy Halladay-to-the-Phillies trade. Brown and fellow outfielder Michael Taylor were the consensus top two outfield prospects in the Phillies' system and while Taylor, a Stanford product in Double-A when the Halladay rumors started swirling, was viewed as a sure thing close to the majors, Brown was more of an unknown.

The Phillies drafted Brown as something of a project out of high school, going over slot to entice him to turn pro rather than play wide receiver for the University of Miami. Brown was raw, but immediately effective. By mid-2009 he was one of the top 50 prospects in minor league baseball, displaying all five traditional tools, plus plate discipline and quite a bit of power. At the start of the 2009 season, no one knew his name (literally -- everyone spelled it "Dominic" until he started correcting reporters in midseason) but by July he was one of the two guys Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi desperately wanted for Halladay, and one of two guys Phillies GM Ruben Amaro would refuse to give up.

The other was Drabek.

* * * *

Drabek had become a household name immediately upon signing with the Phillies. This was in no small part because he is the son of former Pirates pitcher Doug Drabek, and immediately, Phillies fans started imagining the first father-and-son combination to win the Cy Young Award.

Despite his being the bigger name, I never got as familiar with Drabek’s game as I became with Brown’s. My overriding emotion toward Drabek was puzzlement that he wore a single-digit uniform number (No. 4) while with Double-A Reading, which is very unusual for a pitcher and something I chalked up to no one really caring about minor-league numbering. As it turns out, Drabek has continued to wear No. 4 in the big leagues, but we’ll get back to that later.

Obviously, there’s more to Kyle Drabek than numerical creativity, such as a blistering fastball, which he played against a hard slider to deliver the kind of stuff one might expect from a back-end bullpen arm, not a starter. Drabek the minor league pitcher, as I remember, was kind of like the actor Jack Black -- very effective, very in-your-face and not at all subtle.

After two seasons ironing out a bumpy transition to pro ball that included Tommy John surgery, Drabek arrived in high-A Clearwater around the same time Brown did, at the start of the 2009 season. It was there that he truly started to shine, posting a 3.19 ERA between Clearwater and Reading, striking out three batters for every one he walked. Ricciardi viewed Drabek as something of a successor to Halladay if he were traded, and Amaro, aware of his potential, refused to give him up. The tug-of-war over Drabek not only forced Amaro to shift his focus to Cleveland’s Cliff Lee, but it lifted Drabek’s already exalted status in the eyes of Phillies fans to an even higher level. By the end of 2009, we were penciling in a late 2010 arrival for Drabek alongside staff ace Lee and Cole Hamels.

Hamels' success was somewhat responsible for the high expectations surrounding Drabek. He was, after all, the last high school pitcher the Phillies had picked in the first round, and his career had turned out to be everything anyone could have expected and more.

* * * *

Not getting traded for Roy Halladay sends a very clear message from the front office to the fans: this kid is going to be so good that we won’t give him up for the best pitcher in baseball. This was always pure balderdash. I wrote at the time -- while being just as amped about Drabek as anyone -- that the ceiling, the absolute pie-in-the-sky limit of Kyle Drabek’s potential was to be the sort of pitcher who consumes innings in gulps of dozens and carves a trail of sadness and destruction through opposing lineups. In short, to be Roy Halladay. Why keep the potential when you can have the realization?

I think it’s because prospects are the physical embodiment of optimism. Anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to the game knows that prospects, even top-tier prospects, flame out all the time. To paraphrase Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus, prospects aren’t unpredictable because they’re prospects -- they’re unpredictable because they’re baseball players.

But with the risk of disappointment comes the potential for greatness. Not just panning out and being a decent everyday player, the contributor or even the star, but being the object of awe and envy. It’s the possibility of panning out.

We never got the chance, as Phillies fans, to see Drabek pan out because after the 2009 season he was shipped off to Toronto for Halladay after all in one of the most bizarre days of transactions in team history. He was, at the time of the trade, one of the most recognizable pitchers in an organization that, at the end of 2009, boasted two Cy Young winners (Lee and Pedro Martinez) and the reigning World Series MVP.

All before he made his major league debut.

Because of the consternation that followed the trade of Lee to the Mariners, we never gave Drabek his proper sendoff, but his departure placed the mantle of Guy the Phillies Wouldn’t Trade for Roy Halladay squarely on Domonic Brown’s shoulders. And as far as imagining the unreasonable goes, Brown was the perfect subject. His relative youth, his athleticism, and that unbelievable swing led me, at least, not to see Domonic Brown as himself, but as an expectation. In a moment of what now looks like a fit of hallucinatory optimism, I started drawing mental parallels between Brown and Griffey.

* * * *

By midseason 2010, the Brown hype had reached a fever pitch. It dwarfed the hype that had surrounded Drabek and Hamels, or Chase Utley, or even Ryan Howard, who won the Rookie of the Year award on the heels of a season in which he mashed 46 home runs and slugged .637 between Double-A and Triple-A.

By midseason, he not only was The Guy the Phillies Wouldn’t Trade for Halladay, but he was said to be the top minor league prospect in the game by both ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball America. It didn’t hurt that he’d been on an extended hot streak that would see him finish the 2009 season with a .327/.391/.589 slash line across Double-A and Triple-A. He’d hit like a monster everywhere he’d been; what was he going to do when he reached the majors, not hit like a monster?

So when Shane Victorino went on the DL on July 28, 2010, Brown got the call. David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News began his pregame blog post that day by writing "The Domonic Brown era has begun."

Brown started in right field, and went 2-for-3 with a double and a sacrifice fly in his first game as the most anticipated Phillies rookie since Pat Burrell.

The next day, Amaro traded J.A. Happ and two prospects to Houston for Roy Oswalt, making Brown The Guy the Phillies Wouldn’t Trade for Lee, Halladay or Oswalt.

Brown stuck in right field until Victorino came back, then struggled as a bench bat the rest of the season before not really featuring in the playoffs. No one was worried, though. It was a small sample size, and the Phillies had three good outfielders blocking Brown. But come 2011, after Jayson Werth had left as a free agent to open up right field, we knew things would pick up, and after a year of envying Florida’s Mike Stanton (before both team and player changed their names) and Atlanta’s Jason Heyward, we’d have a young, power-hitting outfielder of our own.

Then Brown took a pitch off his hand in spring training 2011, breaking his hamate bone, knocking him out of the major league lineup until May and sapping power from his swing for the entire 2011 season. It was at this point that things took a turn for the truly bizarre.

* * * *

While Phillies fans, rightfully enamored with Halladay, have all but forgotten about Drabek, he’s undergoing his own unpleasantness right now in Toronto. Like Brown, Drabek got a cup of coffee at the end of 2010 and was mediocre in limited action, but with hope for the future. In the Jays’ minor league system, however, Drabek slowly lost his grip on his control, pushing his BB/9 ratio from 2.9 in his last year with the Phillies to 4.9 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in 2011. In the majors, he’s fared little better, walking 97 against only 105 strikeouts in 151 innings. His inability to get batters out quickly has caused some laughable pitch counts:

  • April 30, 2011: 2 1/3 innings, 78 pitches, 40 strikes

  • May 10, 2011: 5 innings, 109 pitches, 60 strikes

  • June 12, 2011: 4 innings, 91 pitches, 45 strikes

  • May 11, 2012: 4 1/3 innings, 109 pitches, 61 strikes

  • May 27, 2012: 3 innings, 67 pitches, 34 strikes

And yet, Blue Jays fans don’t seem overly concerned with his struggles. I mean, they’re a little worried that The Guy They Got for Roy Halladay is going through his Steve Dalkowski phase, but it’s not a matter of crisis the way it would have been in Philadelphia. Part of that might be that Blue Jays fans are less prone, in general, to the hasty judgment, collective hysteria and overreaction of Phillies fans. The other part is that Blue Jays fans have, in addition to current superprospects (and former Phillies farmhands) Travis d’Arnaud and Anthony Gose, Brett Lawrie.

If ever there was a case of a fan base getting attached to a prospect and projecting its wildest dreams onto him, it’s with Lawrie, who is electrifying on the field, mercurial off it, in addition to being Canadian, which, I’m told, plays well with the hometown fans. Lawrie’s Canadian roots, growling demeanor, and ability to be at once immensely popular and immensely polarizing remind me rather of Nickelback, now that I think of it.

When Lawrie’s in the fold, Drabek’s control issues matter less. The Blue Jays are clearly on the rise, and there are other players to carry the hopes of the fans.

* * * *

That wasn’t the case with Brown. By the time he made his 2011 season debut, he was the only real major league-ready prospect left in the Phillies’ system. Brown’s play, still dogged by the injury, was less than stellar. Once again, he was installed as the Phillies’ starting right fielder, but instead of the tape-measure home runs and rocket throws from the outfield that characterized 2010, Brown looked lost, batting only .245/.333/.391, misplaying balls in the outfield and famously, on June 26, not running out a fifth-inning groundball. Brown never really recovered from that in many fans’ eyes, and he polarized a fan base that was otherwise enjoying perhaps the franchise's most entertaining regular season in recent memory.

On one hand were those who had seen enough and were convinced Brown was a defensive liability and a lollygagger and should be traded while he still had some value or sent back to the minors to refine his approach.

On the other were those who stressed patience and offered up the hand injury as an excuse for poor performance. We (I was in this camp) noted that as bad as Brown was offensively and defensively, the Phillies had no qualms about playing Raul Ibanez, who was worse in both respects, and batting him in the middle of the lineup. Moreover, Brown had already shown he could hit Double-A and Triple-A pitching and could only advance as a hitter if he played every day in the majors. Sending him to Lehigh Valley would be as nonsensical as Luke Skywalker, upon hearing that Yoda had nothing more to teach him, had said, "You know what? I’m not going to fight the Empire. It might be momentarily inconvenient, so I’m going to sit here on Dagobah to eat snakes and run through the fog."

Amaro, unfortunately, was of neither of those minds. On July 29, 2011, the one-year anniversary of the Oswalt trade and the two-year anniversary of the Lee trade, he acquired Hunter Pence from Houston for Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart, the last two major Phillies prospects of Brown’s generation, and two other minor leaguers. Amaro made it clear that in this process, it would be Brown who would lose his job to accommodate Pence, not Ibanez, and at that moment, it finally sunk in for me that Domonic Brown would never become Ken Griffey Jr.

That night, Brown batted second and started in right field. He went 1-for-5, struck out twice, and scored two runs in a 10-3 win over the Pirates. He hasn’t started a game for the Phillies since.

* * * *

The good thing for Kyle Drabek is that the Blue Jays seem committed to running him out there every fifth day, and throwing in their lot with him. Drabek was acquired for the best starting pitcher in baseball at the time, so it makes sense for the Blue Jays to see what he’s got, even if it costs them a little in the short term.

That’s the thing about top prospects like Drabek and Brown -- they get chances. People see a season of outrageous minor league production from a guy who’s too young for his level and they keep giving him opportunities to fail. They run these guys out there game after game, and if the team gives up on a prospect, they make absolutely sure he’s worth giving up on.

The point is the Blue Jays don’t appear close to giving up on Drabek, and nor should they be.

Some prospects -- Giants fans are probably thinking of Brandon Belt -- aren’t so lucky.

* * * *

What’s happened to Brown since the Pence trade? Nagging injuries, more defensive struggles in the minors, a spot in left field denied for, among others, Laynce Nix, John Mayberry Jr., Juan Pierre and Michael Martinez. Even when he came back up to the big club in September, he couldn’t get in the lineup, while the likes of John Bowker got key at-bats.

But most troubling is that, for the first time in his career, Brown isn’t hitting minor league pitching, with a .264/.302/.380 slash line at Triple-A Lehigh Valley this season. And for the first time since we first heard of him, Phillies fans have kind of forgotten about Brown. Outrage over seeing Pierre in the lineup every day has grown into resignation, and the cries on the Twitter discussions of "Free Dom Brown!" have morphed into "Freedom Brown!" then turned into jokes, then slowly disappeared. In the span of three years, Domonic Brown has gone from relative unknown to savior to pariah to afterthought.

It’s still not entirely clear to me why the Phillies didn't commit to playing Brown. The party line is that Brown’s defense is unmentionably bad, but there’s a little bit of ideological inconsistency to saying that, then putting Ibanez and Pierre in left field instead. But Brown’s failure, at least at this moment, appears to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s not to say that he (or Drabek, for that matter) can’t turn it around and become an effective major league player, or even a star, but after watching the Phillies do what they did with Brown, in spite of all his promise and without really giving a reason, I’ve learned a valuable lesson.

* * * *

The amateur draft is on Monday, and your team is going to pick up a promising young arm or young bat, and you’re going to fall in love. Maybe not immediately, but if you’re at all interested in your club’s minor league system, you’re going to fall in love with a prospect, either for his unreal minor league numbers or because he’s got a cool name or because your team hasn’t contended in years and you need some modicum of hope to keep you sane. Or, in the case of the Orioles and Dylan Bundy, all three.

I’m not telling you not to fall in love with a prospect, because at this stage in my emotional attachment to Dom Brown, that would be like the guy who just got dumped cornering you at the bar after seven glasses of bourbon and delivering a soliloquy on how all women are evil and not to be trusted. That doesn’t help anyone.

Just keep this in mind when you’re geeking out over Mike Zunino, or Corey Seager, or whoever, when you start projecting them in a lineup five years down the road. Yes, they could turn into a franchise-defining star like Brett Lawrie. But they could languish in the high minors without ever really getting a chance, like Brown, or be traded for more immediate help, like Drabek. And the Drabeks and Browns outnumber the Lawries.

I fell in love with potential once, and got burned. Be more cautious than I was and don’t jump in all at once, or you’ll be left with nothing but disappointment and regret.

And the memory of a wonderful swing.

Michael Baumann contributes regularly to Crashburn Alley, a blog about the Phillies.