Brown has become center of attention with Phillies

Domonic Brown is still working on his batting stance.
Domonic Brown is still working on his batting stance.
Posted: March 02, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The best part about coming into spring training with only one significant blank left to be filled in is obvious. It means there should be few distractions as the players go about their business, that 6 weeks under the swaying palms can be spent focusing on preparing for the regular season.

The drawback is just as plain. Having lots of question marks diffuses the attention. Having just one concentrates every bit of hope and angst into a laser-like focus that tends to blow every scrap of minutiae into an issue far out of proportion to its actual importance.

The Phillies' need to identify a new rightfielder to replace Jayson Werth, combined with a dearth of alternative story lines to follow, has placed rookie Domonic Brown squarely in the middle of this artificial maelstrom.

Brown made the mistake of going hitless in his first four Grapefruit League games, striking out in eight of his 12 at-bats. Which wouldn't have caused a ripple in the Gulf of Mexico except that Brown is one of the candidates to fill the aforementioned rightfield vacancy.

Throw in the fact that he's also rated as the fourth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America and you have all the elements for a premature activation of the fans' distant early- warning system.

It's worth pointing out that Josh Hamilton of the Rangers led the majors in hitting last year with a .359 average. He went hitless in three straight games twice in April. Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez won the NL title at .336. He was held without a hit in at least three straight games three times last season.

But that's almost beside the point.

Hey, it would be fun to watch if Brown grabbed the position, had a great season, was voted the National League Rookie of the Year and helped the Phillies win another World Series.

The reality, though, is that Brown is still just 23 years old. He's played a total of just 130 minor league games in Double and Triple A. For all his considerable skills, he remains relatively inexperienced, a high school football star who didn't turn his full attention to baseball until after he was drafted out of high school.

"He's still in the development stage," manager Charlie Manuel reminded everybody after yesterday's 6-2 exhibition loss to the Tigers at Bright House Field.

The Phillies don't need Brown to make the team this year. He'd naturally be disappointed if he spent the entire year at Triple A Lehigh Valley, but it wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing in the world for him. It certainly wouldn't devalue his promise or lead the Phillies to suspect that his future is any less bright.

There are times when teams can develop at the major league level. The Phillies are not at that point. They're constructed to win right now.

Which means that Brown will be on the roster on Opening Day only if the baseball people are convinced that he gives them the best chance to reach their ultimate goal.

If not, Ben Francisco will be the rightfielder. Or John Mayberry Jr. will. Or they'll find somebody else.

Except that they're not even close to making that decision yet. Probably won't be for a couple more weeks. Then and only then can they begin to properly evaluate what they have and begin to work their way through the process of deciding how to answer the only significant question they have.

Coming into spring training, the Phillies were encouraged because Brown had changed his batting stance, lowering his hands noticeably. Since games have started, though, he's raised his hands again, though not as high as they were at the end of last season. He insists he's getting more comfortable every day.

"The results aren't there, but I'm not really worried about that right now. I'm just trying to get a good feeling and get back comfortable. We tried to lower the hands. That ain't working. So we wiped that out," he said.

Manuel has explained away Brown's slow start by saying that he just needs to slow down.

The outfielder shook his head and laughed.

"Man, I'm about as slow as I can get right now," he said.

The manager also said Brown might be pressing. Brown doesn't agree with that, either.

"I ain't pressing or anything like that. It's going to take time. I'm not worried about anything. I know the results will come," he said. "If they send me to Triple A, I go to Triple A. But it's too early to discuss that right now."

He's right. So until further notice, Manuel will keep writing the rookie's name into the lineup card and making mental notes, just like he's doing with Francisco and Mayberry.

And anybody who has been paying attention to how baseball works understands that while it's entirely possible that the conclusion will be that Brown isn't quite ready for the big leagues yet, there's just as good a chance that this is just a random 0-fer that every hitter goes through. It's just getting a lot of attention because of Brown's potential and the fact that there's not a whole lot else to obsess over at this point of the spring.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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