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Don't Bring Up Domonic Brown (Again) (For Now)

Soon. But not yet.
Soon. But not yet.

Back in the summer of 2010, the Phillies were struggling to stay above .500 and Raul Ibanez was having a poor first half. Meanwhile, Domonic Brown was playing well after making the big jump to AA Reading out of spring training, and was getting lots of publicity as one of baseball's top five prospects. Naturally, the talk radio callers and internet commenters were irate. Why wasn't Brown in the majors? The team needed him, and he was obviously ready! Surely the Phillies were only holding him back because of their cheapness (somehow)!

On June 14, I wrote this article: Don't Bring Up Domonic Brown. Sadly, Ruben Amaro once again chose not to defer to my views. A few weeks later, Brown was promoted to AAA Lehigh Valley (which was fine). Then, after Shane Victorino suffered a minor injury in late July, Brown was promoted to the majors.

He struggled. In roughly two weeks as an everyday player, he posted a .237/.238/.368 slash line in 42 PA, with 1 BB and 13 K. Then, Victorino returned, but Amaro inexplicably failed to return Brown to AAA for the remaining few weeks of the season. Instead, he rode the bench as a pinch-hitter, where his struggles at the plate worsened. He also played the outfield poorly, which was a bit of a surprise as he never before had a reputation as a bad fielder.

That was the beginning of a long rough stretch for Brown. First, he went to winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he got sick, played terribly, and was sent home. Then he broke his hamate bone in the spring, knocking him out of commission for a month. After returning, he posted decent offensive numbers but continued to field his position poorly - so poorly, in fact, that by late July, his fWAR was 0.0. Then the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence and sent Brown to AAA to learn to play LF. The rest of his season there was a mess, including a memorable August 29 doubleheader in which he struck out four times and committed four fielding errors. The Pigs made the International League playoffs, but Brown played sparingly. He was sent back to AAA this spring (a decision that I argued was defensible). As of two weeks ago, things hadn't improved. On the morning of May 26, Brown had a slashline of .231/.274/.333 and had made 5 errors in only 30 games. He also missed some time with a strained hamstring.

Nearly all commentary on Brown at this point, from all angles, consisted of recriminations galore. The talk radio-programmed ignoramuses had determined that Brown was a "bust," that the Phillies had sold them a "bill of goods," and that they needed to "cut their losses" by dumping him for pennies on the dollar. No, it didn't matter that he was only 24 years old and had so recently been a blue-chip prospect. They had seen a half-season of struggles with their own eyes, and that was all they needed to know. A few of them placed some blame on the organization as well for "jerking him around," but came to the conclusion that what was done was done, that Brown was unalterably ruined, and that all that was left to be done was to extract some salvage value. WIP's Anthony Gargano (a nice guy for a radio host, but in the words of the great Foghorn Leghorn, about as sharp as a bowling ball) spent all of last week lobbying the Phillies to offer Brown to the Padres for Carlos Quentin (!) though he was afraid that the Padres wouldn't think that was enough.

On the other side of the debate was a minority of Brown "backers" who were furious at the front office for wronging Brown by sending him to AAA at all. Ironically, as Brown continued to struggle a month into 2012, some of these "backers" began to converge with the bashers on one point -- that Brown could never succeed in Philadelphia. The only difference was that, while the bashers thought Brown wouldn't succeed here because he stunk, these "backers" thought Brown wouldn't succeed here because the front office "hated" him and was willfully making it impossible for him to succeed.

Both of these groups were wrong, in equal measure. Yes, the Phillies blundered with Brown. The blunder was calling him up prematurely in 2010 and keeping him in the majors for the rest of the year, when he should have been in AAA refining his weaknesses and continuing to build his confidence. That was their original sin. But it was also their only sin. The Phillies have not wronged Brown since 2010. They rightly gave him steady playing time in mid-2011. They correctly determined that he still had things to work on, particularly defense, and once they acquired Pence, they acted rationally in sending Brown back to AAA. (The Pence trade was dumb, but not because of the effect it would have on Brown. It was dumb because it was unnecessary and too costly. Once the trade was made, sending Brown to AAA was perfectly defensible.)

Nothing that happened between the Pence trade and May 26 should have gotten anyone riled up about Brown, whether basher or "backer." He struggled over a relatively small sample at the same time he was learning a new position and struggling with nagging injuries. Woop dee doo - it happens. He wasn't crapping out, nor were the Phillies preventing him from succeeding. He was just enduring a rough patch while struggling to overcome some adversity. It was very reasonable for the Phillies to believe they were actually helping him by allowing him to deal with those struggles away from the MLB spotlight.

Now, as you might have heard, Brown is on a hot streak at Lehigh Valley. He homered twice last night, and has four homers in his last six games. His slash line over his last 10 games is .415/.455/.756. Undeniably great news.

This is probably confounding the bashers, as it flies in the face of their belief that Brown stinks. But once some time passes, I predict that their posture will shift from dumbfoundedness to hypocritical doublethink. Many of the bashers of 2011-2012 were the same folks who cried all through 2010 about being forced to wait for Brown's debut. Then, when Brown predictably struggled, they blamed it on Brown and accused him of not really having any talent. If Brown keeps playing well now, they will forget everything they've said since 2011 and go right back to their 2010 selves. You can't listen to anything they say because they're just walking, talking, unreasoning ids.

The Phillies' front office was wrong to do (consciously or not) what these fans wanted them to do in 2010, and it shouldn't repeat that mistake in 2012. Brown is a tremendous talent and it was always likely that his struggles would eventually end, but at the same time, his recent struggles were still real, not some sort of illusion. He really did stink at defense in 2011. He really did struggle at the plate this April. Prospect development is an art, not a science, and it's impossible to draw an unbroken causal line from Brown's premature 2010 promotion to his struggles in 2011 and early 2012. But it isn't an uncommon practice for a prospect who dominates a level to be given what John Sickels has referred to as a "consolidation season." That's because it isn't necessarily beneficial for a prospect to be promoted at the first sign of success. The success could be a fluke. And even (especially?) if it isn't, there is value in being allowed to enjoy extended success. It can give the prospect a sense of assurance, if he struggles at the next level, that it is his present struggles that are the fluke and not his past success.

Brown has never had a consolidation season. The last time he had more than 280 PA at a single level in a single year was 2008 in Lakewood. And he's just emerging from a couple of months of play that have legitimately been very trying. Why not let him calmly enjoy his success for at least a month or two before throwing him back into the alligators' pit that is Citizens Bank Park? Brown's long-term development is more important than the short-term playoff hopes of the 2012 team. If I'm right, and the erstwhile bashers whom you dislike are just about to switch sides and start clamoring for Brown's promotion, then maybe that should tell you something about that course of action. The most important thing is to do what's best for Dom in the long run. Waiting may help, and it won't hurt. What the Phillies should do is wait until he does so well for so long - especially in his fielding, not his hitting! - that it's simply impossible to keep him in AAA any longer. I'm very hopeful that this will be the case soon, but it isn't the case yet today, nor will it be the case tomorrow or next week or the week after.