When the Phillies traded their other stud outfield prospect Michael Taylor in the Roy Halladay deal, the road was paved for Domonic Brown to start 2011 as the starting right fielder in Philadelphia.
Jayson Werth wasn't getting resigned, Brown was named the number on prospect in all of baseball and the one guy Ruben Amaro refused to deal in a trade for any of the aces he has acquired. He had a clear path. He even led the team with a .417 average in the Spring, before being sent down to the minors on a day where he hit two home runs off Justin Verlander and Phil Coke.
After posting .327/.391/.589 averages between Reading and Lehigh Valley, a Shane Victorino DL stint brought him up to the show for the first time in his career. But after going 2-3 with a double off Edwin Jackson and the Diamondbacks in his first game, Brown only logged 11 more hits in 59 at-bats, good for a .186 batting average -- not exactly starting material.
It was in the way Brown was being used that did the most damage to his numbers. After he hit his first ML home run against the Dodgers' Ronald Belisario on August 10th, Dom logged 3+ at-bats just two times the rest of the season. He stayed on the team the rest of the season even when Shane came back, posting a final, uglier than it looks line of .210/.257/.355. Platooning Brown with Ben Francisco only let Dom face left-handed pitchers 13 times. He spent much of the last month of the season and both rounds of the playoffs being used by Charlie Manuel as a defensive replacement and pinch runner.
Knowing how Charlie is with not using his bench enough, I wrote an article last August about how predictable it was that Brown was riding the pine. If he wasn't going to get regular at-bats, he should have never been called up in the first place. Some people made a huge deal of the fact that in 29 at-bats in the Dominican Winter League, Brown only hit safely twice, for a .069 batting average. Most are overreacting because winter league is a place where young guys try out different things to see how they work -- batting stance, how they grip the bat, jumping on pitches, etc. It's also taking place in the Dominican Republic, which, for a young person could be disorienting and cause him to start off slow until he gets his footing. But the Phillies sent him home before he could recover, and now everybody thinks he's not ready because of what would be seven games of baseball.
I disagree with that notion. Few players are ever ready for the MLB in that they'll produce the same way they did in the minor leagues. There will be growing pains and there will be times when he struggles and looks clueless out there. But he is the number one prospect in the major leagues, and there's a spot ready for him right now.
The lineup and the team are talented enough that even if he starts slow or goes into a terrible slump, they should continue to win games. Batting 6th or 7th every day on a team like this doesn't put much pressure on him to shoulder the load, allowing him to work through whatever struggles he has. This includes batting him against left-handed pitching. His splits weren't drastic at all in the minors and is able to hit ML pitching regardless of handedness.
The second option of platooning him with Ben Francisco is horribly unappealing. Not implying Francisco is a bad player by any means -- he could start on a number of different teams. But he should be sharing the duties with Raul Ibanez in left field. Francisco mauled left-handed pitching last year for an OPS .261 points higher than against righties, while the 38-year-old Ibanez struck out significantly less, walked more, and hit 12 of his 16 home runs against RHP for an OPS 0.94 points higher. He is simply no longer an everyday outfielder. In limited time, he can be effective, but his mediocre fielding is getting even worse and the holes in his swing are becoming more pronounced. Let him stay fresh and injury-free so he and Francisco can combine to form one solid outfielder, while Domonic controls the other side.
Here are Bill James' projections for Brown, Francisco, and Ibanez for the 2011 season from Fangraphs.
I'd say all three are rather optimistic, but according to these projections, Brown will have a significantly better season than either of the other two, in this his first full major league year. He's a much cheaper option than they could find elsewhere, and his arbitration clock has already started anyway since they brought him up last summer. The worst thing they could do is platoon him with Francisco. Keeping him in Lehigh Valley for a full year isn't the worst thing in the world, but it's not prudent either.
The Phillies have waited too long in bringing up their prospects recently, and while they have paid off substantially, they've spent money unnecessarily trying to fill holes that can be plugged by the prospects. Dom's got less than 500 ABs against Double-A and Triple-A pitching, but as the number one prospect in baseball, he has the tools to be an everyday right fielder right away. Hopefully he performs well in the Spring and makes Amaro's decision easier.
Would he be better right away if he went down to Triple-A for more seasoning, hit off sub-par pitching and came up next year? Of course. But does he need to? In order to reach his potential quicker, and save money in the process, Brown should be suiting up in right field at Citizens Bank Park every day. This Phillies team is old. The infusion of young talent is what will help keep the Phillies atop the NL for longer than the next two seasons. Starting Domonic Brown will be a step in the right direction.
There isn't anything wrong with rookie struggles. He's a smart kid, and he's not Gavin Floyd. Let him play, let him struggle, then let him show everyone he deserves to be here.