BOSTON - Over the past 2 months, the National League East has witnessed the debuts of three of the most ballyhooed prospects in recent memory, with Jason Heyward winning a job with the Braves out of spring training and Stephen Strasburg and Mike Stanton joining the Nationals and Marlins, respectively, this week. Factor in the Phillies' recent offensive struggles, and it is no surprise that many fans have begun to speculate about the estimated time of arrival of their own blue-chipper.
But Domonic Brown is right where the organization wants him, at Double A Reading, and the powers-that-be have given no indication that they view the multitalented outfielder as anything greater than a potential September call-up.
"Some people say that you can make the jump from Double A and who's to say he can't do that," said assistant general manager Chuck LaMar, who has had a long career in player development and is intimately involved with the Phillies' minor league system, "but right now, we don't have to do that, and we like where he is at at Double A."
You will hear similar sentiments from nearly anyone you talk to in the Phillies' organization. They are thrilled with the way the lefthanded-hitting corner outfielder, who entered the season ranked as the 15th-best prospect in the sport by Baseball America, has developed. He finished a spectacular spring training by hitting two home runs in his final Grapefruit League game, one against Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
He has shown remarkable polish at the plate this season, hitting .306 with nine extra-base hits and nine strikeouts in 49 at-bats against lefthanders, and .309 with 10 home runs and a .945 OPS overall. Most importantly, the Phillies have noticed improvement in his route-running and fielding skills, which are necessary complements to an arm that is one of his most powerful tools.
"He's doing everything we could expect of him," LaMar said. "He got slowed a couple times early with injury, but he's handled himself the way he did in major league camp and has really carried that over into his season."
But LaMar said the Phillies have had no discussions about Brown's arrival in the majors, or even his advancement to Triple A Lehigh Valley.
Including reserves Greg Dobbs and Ross Gload, the Phillies have six outfielders on their roster, three of whom bat lefthanded. They have righthanded-hitting John Mayberry Jr., a member of the 40-man roster, at Lehigh Valley, along with newly signed veteran Willy Taveras.
Dobbs, who also plays third base, is hitting .138, and veteran Raul Ibanez entered last night's game hitting .247 with three home runs in 186 at-bats. But Ibanez, who is 38 years old and signed through next season, has a track record of getting hot quickly and should merit more leeway after his normal offseason preparation was hampered by abdominal surgery. And Dobbs has gotten just 58 at-bats this season.
Besides, the reverberations of any roster move that comes at the expense of a veteran could instill an unnecesarry sense of panic in the clubhouse.
"There are a lot of factors when you call a guy straight up from Double A," LaMar said.
So what is the plan for Brown? LaMar said there isn't one.
"Usually, we don't map it out," he said. "I think the player drives that. He's a young man who has played parts of seasons on different teams. I don't think it would hurt any of our feelings if he played the whole year at Reading."
Brown is only 22 years old, and has played just 90 games above Class A, all for Reading.
Although Heyward and Stanton, both of whom are 20 years old, spent less time at Double A, they are anomalies. Of the 40 first-year players with the highest OPS over the last 15 years, only Jeff Francoeur, Mark Reynolds, Dan Uggla and Mark Teixeira did not play any games at Triple A (minimum 50 big-league games, and not including Japanese import Ichiro Suzuki).
Of those 40, only 11 were promoted to the big leagues with less than 100 games of experience above Class A.
Benny Looper, another Phillies assistant GM who has a long career in player development, said he never knows for sure when a player is ready for the majors.
"To absolutely say he's ready? I don't know if I could ever say that," he said. "You just have to use your instincts, use your best judgment, talk to other people involved that have had the experience and make the call on it."
But he views the decision as an all-in proposition.
"I know when you have a very good prospect like that, and you make that decision, you stick with it," Looper said. "You put them out there every day, even if they are hitting .100."
To emphasize this belief, he pointed to the White Sox' handling of Robin Ventura 2 decades ago. In September 1989, Ventura hit .178 in 16 games, then began the next season hitting .196 with a .512 OPS and three home runs in his first 50 games.
"But Chicago stuck with him," Looper said, "and he took off."
Chicago also finished that season seventh in the AL West. The Phillies, who were 2 1/2 games out of first place before last night's game, are attempting to reach their third straight World Series.
But even if the Phillies thought Brown could handle the pressure of being expected to produce for a World Series contender, are they really in a position to guarantee him enough at-bats? Even if he struggles for his first month? Even if they look to add another hitter at the trade deadline?
The answer, right now, would appear to be no.