Domonic Brown of the Philadelphia Phillies hits for a base hit in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)
Former prospects like Domonic Brown might not start the year in the majors, but they could still impact the season before long.
Want to rile up some Phillies fans today? Ask them how they feel about Domonic Brown being optioned to Triple-A in favor of John Mayberry. Mayberry is a lefty-mashing 28-year-old whose future is likely as a fourth outfielder. Brown was rated the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2011 season. Yet, when the Phillies needed an outfielder to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez's departure, Mayberry is to whom they turned.
There's nothing wrong with John Mayberry. He has killed southpaws in his short time in the majors, and that's a skill that will keep him gainfully employed for another 10 years if he can keep it up. But as far as his potential goes, he's no Domonic Brown. Optioning Brown to Triple-A doesn't mean the Phillies can't change their minds later -- general manager Ruben Amaro might just feel like Brown needs more seasoning and a place where he can play every day while they figure out what they can get out of Mayberry. The fact they can change their minds makes Brown intriguing as a mid-season call-up who could help change the fortunes of a team that's likely to contend.
It's easy to hate on the Phillies for optioning Brown, but to be fair, they're somewhat justified in their decision. Brown has just 292 plate appearances at Triple-A, and hit .298/.390/.453 there. That's real good, but it could also be better: Brown slugged an unconvincing .370 at the level over 174 plate appearances in 2011.
The 24-year-old Brown has about the same amount of MLB time on his resume (280 plate appearances), and has not produced there, either. His .236/.314/.382 showing doesn't scream MLB-ready. To be fair to Brown, his struggles in both the majors and in Triple-A last season could be a product of the Phillies bouncing him around, and then these wounds are self-inflicted. But Brown hasn't succeeded when he has been given the chance, serving to reinforce whatever negative notions Philly has about him. It doesn't help that he's a work-in-progress defensively, either, but given this is a team that just put up with Raul Ibanez's declining bat and never-there glove, it's hardly an excuse with merit.
Those 280 plate appearances in the majors mean Brown is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a prospect. Kevin Goldstein still rates Brown as the top 25-and-under talent in the Phillies' organization, though, so the love is still there, even if rookie rules prohibit him from being considered a prospect anymore.
Should Brown hit more like it's 2010 in his third stint at Triple-A, the Phillies will likely give him another opportunity to take the left field job. With Ryan Howard recovering from an Achilles injury, and Chase Utley out for an indeterminate amount of time due to his knee, the Phillies might very well need the version of Brown that prospect mavens know he is capable of being.
Brown isn't the only former prospect who could change the fortunes of his team's season. Brandon Belt was the #23 prospect for Baseball America heading into 2011, but after 209 plate appearances with the Giants last season, he's lost that status. He hasn't lost the ability, though: Goldstein rates Belt as the fifth-best talent under 25 in the organization.
While it's easy to dismiss him based on his uninspiring 2011 (.225/.306/.412), you have to remember that he was just 23 and in his first major-league stint, as well as the pitcher's park he plays in. That line translates to a 101 OPS+, a hair better than league-average. Not bad for a 23-year-old who bounced between the majors and minors.
Unlike Brown, Belt raked at Triple-A in 2011, hitting .309/.448/.527. Like Brown, Belt's bat could do a lot for a Giants lineup in need of extra punch. The Giants want him to be more aggressive at the plate, though, as the passive patience that helps him so much against minor league pitching will cost him against the more experienced hurlers in the bigs who can take advantage of his wait-and-see plan. The NL West is basically there for the taking -- the team to get hot last very well might be the division champion come October. Should Belt start to play every day by mid-season, he, like Buster Posey before him, could be the catalyst that sets a postseason appearance into motion.
While not quite the caliber of prospect of Brown or Belt, Ryan Kalish of the Red Sox has also lost his prospect status. He's still considered one of the organization's most talented youngsters, as Goldstein rates Kalish second among 25-and-unders.
Kalish missed nearly all of 2011 thanks to a series of injuries. He partially tore his labrum in April, and developed a bulging disc in his neck after that. He's had surgery to correct both issues, and recently started to swing off of a tee. He won't be ready for Opening Day, but if he looks like the Kalish of old at Triple-A, he'll be up with the Red Sox at some point this year.
Kalish played at three levels in 2010, beginning the year at Double-A, and finishing up in the majors thanks to a tidal wave of Red Sox injuries. The then 22-year-old hit .293/.404/.527 at his first stop before moving on to Triple-A Pawtucket (.294/.356/.476). While his time in the majors wasn't great, .252/.305/.405 with quality defense isn't a bad first impression from a 22-year-old.
That stint did show he wasn't quite major league ready yet, though, so don't expect him to be back up with the Red Sox the moment his neck and shoulder check out. He'll need to master Triple-A to get his next ticket to Boston, but with platoon outfielders Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney all that's between Kalish and a permanent gig in the bigs, he'll likely get his chance to help bring the Red Sox back to October before long. If things go well, he might even see Brown or Belt there.