There seems to be a touch of consternation in some quarters over the many (though not entirely consistent) comments from the Phillies' front office this offseason indicating that Domonic Brown will be sent to AAA out of spring training and could stay there all year. "How can they rank Brown behind crappy Laynce Nix on the depth chart?"
Those feelings are understandable, but I think they're an overreaction. There are a lot of Dom haters in this town who, for various irrational reasons, would like the team to simply dispose of him, and they are idiots. But just because some fans want the front office to do X and the front office is planning to do X doesn't mean that the front office is planning to do X for the same reason why the fans want it to do X.
In my view, there are a decent number of grounds for doubting that Ruben Amaro shares these fans' opinions of Brown. But more to the point, I don't think it's worthwhile to try to read Ruben's mind here. His "true thoughts" are opaque to us. Instead of debating whether or not "Ruben hates Dom," everyone's time would be better spent debating the plan to send him to AAA on its own merits.
And on its merits, the plan is defensible. I'm not necessarily saying it's what I would do, but neither do I think it's clearly wrong. In saying that, I grant both of the following points. First, the Phillies have mishandled Brown. I don't think their mishandling of him has been as consistent of a pattern as some do, but the front office definitely called him up too soon in 2010, perhaps influenced by the ignorant clamoring of the same fans who have now turned on him (if only someone had warned them!). Then they inexplicably kept him on the bench for the rest of the season when he should have been back in AAA continuing to work on stuff. Second, Laynce Nix is not a very good player, and Brown is almost definitely better than he is already.
So if Brown is better than Nix, then how can Nix be more entitled to a roster spot than Brown? Well, the easy answer is: Do you really want Brown to have Nix's spot? Nix might be on the roster but he isn't going to play every day. My guess is that he'll start less than half the time even while Ryan Howard is out (and obviously, he'll start even less often after Howard gets back). Brown is, in a sense, overqualified for Nix's job. I don't want him here just to sit on the bench for the majority of the games.
Well, you might say, you wouldn't necessarily have to keep Brown in Nix's role. While Howard's on the DL, you could instead make Brown the full-time LF and Mayberry the full-time 1B. Fair enough. But what happens when Howard gets back? If you think the Phillies have mishandled Brown by shuttling him back and forth between Philadelphia and Allentown for the last year-and-a-half, why would you set up a situation where it would be very likely that you'd have to do the exact same thing in one month's time?
Basically, the point is this: in any decisionmaking process that involves Brown, the #1 priority that the Phillies have to consider is how to maximize Brown's long-term development. When you look through that lens, comparisons between Brown and Nix (or whoever) become irrelevant. Yes, part-time Brown would probably help the team a bit more than part-time Nix would. Yes, one month of full-time Brown would probably help the team a bit more than one month of Nix and Jim Thome splitting that pool of plate appearances would. But so what? It's almost impossible to overstate how crucially important Brown's long-term development is to the future of this franchise. Any short-term hit that the 2012 squad takes is meaningless if there's a payoff in the form of Dom becoming a better player in 2013, 2014, 2015, and beyond.
So will sending Brown to the minors and letting him get steady playing time for two/three/four months actually give us that payoff of helping his long-term development? Heck if I know. But neither do you. This is one of those matters on which sabermetrics has little to say to us. The answer depends on a number of subjective factors that are idiosyncratic to Brown and unknowable to those of us who get all our news from the papers. It also depends on how he's been doing in his offseason workouts, which, again, is something we know nothing about.
But could it be the right move for Brown's long-term development? Of course it could. For one thing, even though Brown's performance as a rookie was perfectly fine at the plate, the fact is that his defense wasn't good at all. His UZR/150 was more than 4 runs worse than Raul Ibanez's, albeit at a slightly more difficult position, and his Rtot/yr was 10 runs worse than Raul's. That's why Brown had a fWAR of 0.0, and why he might have been below-average for a major league RF even without bad luck on balls in play or the lingering aftereffects of his spring hamate injury. I'm not too worried about his ability to eventually correct his defensive problems, but if he still has a lot left to work on after the offseason, then the place to work on it is in the minors, where the consequences of any screw-ups don't really matter.
I also don't dismiss the possibility that Brown's development could be negatively affected by (1) getting "jerked around" again between MLB and AAA, or (2) getting booed if the booing becomes really harsh, or (3) putting undue pressure on himself to avoid getting booed. SabasTheHut and I had a dialogue in the Lidge thread the other day on whether it's "coddling" Brown to be concerned about this type of stuff. My personal, unscientific opinion is that it's too simplistic to say successful players always overcome mental stress and if a player is defeated by a particular episode of, say, fan hostility, then there's no need to feel bad about it because that just reveals that he was destined to be defeated eventually anyway. Rather, I suspect that the degree and timing of hostility can make a difference in a player's career. Or to put it another way, I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with "coddling" a player. I also don't think that every successful player in the big leagues overcame that much adversity to get there -- some of them had it relatively easy, and maybe their careers would have turned out differently if they hadn't.
All this is to say that if you really want to defend Brown from his idiot haters, the way to do it isn't by setting him up to fail under the bright lights of CBP. The priority shouldn't be on winning the argument but on advocating what's best for him and, by extension, what's best for the organization. Right now, no one knows, one way or the other, whether playing in Philadelphia now would be best for him, and unless and until that changes, no one should insist that the front office send him here. And if the front office wants to set expectations low in the meantime, that seems perfectly reasonable. In combatting the folks who like to accuse Brown of being crippled by numerous "unfixable" flaws, the correct counterargument isn't that he doesn't really have any flaws at all, because he clearly did have some in 2011. Instead, the correct counterargument is that the faults he has are correctable, and his potential remains very great. If Dom displays significant improvement in the field for an extended period of time and the Phillies are still keeping him in AAA, then we can start complaining about it. But only then.