UPS has the mantra, “What Can Brown Do for You?” In the case of San Francisco center field prospect Gary Brown, the Giants are hoping the once top-50 rated prospect can deliver upon his potential and find a way to stick with the major league ballclub.
The Giants selected the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Brown with the 24th pick of the 2010 June First-Year Player Draft. His draft class included Bryce Harper (No. 1), Manny Machado (No.3), Matt Harvey (No. 7), Chris Sale (No. 13) and Nick Castellanos (No. 44), all who are now big league regulars for their respective teams.
San Francisco had similar high expectations for Brown, and who could blame them? During his final season at perennial Division I power Cal State Fullerton; Brown slashed .438/.468/.695 despite missing time with a broken hand. Of his 92 hits that season, 34 went for extra bases, including 20 doubles, eight triples and six home runs. He also displayed an ability to steal bases, swiping 32 bags in 37 attempts.
The numbers Brown produced had scouts thinking he could profile as a potential leadoff hitter, although there were doubts about his patience at the plate. The thought started to dim over the course of the last four seasons, as Brown has struggled to make consistent contact and find his way on base.
He began his tenure with the San Francisco organization on a high note. During his first full season of professional baseball, the Giants sent Brown to High-A San Jose, where he slashed .336/.407/.519 while stealing 53 bases in 72 attempts and hitting a surprising 14 home runs. He also finished the season with 34 doubles and 13 triples, numbers the San Francisco front office were undoubtedly excited about seeing from their leadoff man of the future.
Brown also participated in the 2011 MLB Futures Game held before the All-Star Game in July, which only grew enthusiasm within the organization for his arrival to the big leagues sooner rather than later.
But things changed as Brown entered his second season of professional baseball, and the problems surrounding his patience at the plate started to surface more.
San Francisco moved the prospect up to Double-A Richmond for 2012, where the coaching staff hoped he would refine his approach at the plate after accumulating just 46 walks while striking out 77 times during the previous season. Instead, Brown regressed against the improved competition. The center field prospect saw his slash line drop to .279/.347/.385, while totaling 32 doubles, two triples, and seven home runs. He drew just 40 walks while striking out 87 times. Brown also struggled in the stolen base department, nabbing just 33 in 51 attempts.
Minor concerns about Brown’s 2012 performance had him dropped lower on the organization’s annual prospect list. Despite the worries, Brown was sent to Triple-A Fresno for the 2013 season, where questions on whether he would even make it to the major leagues started became more apparent.
During 2013, Brown played 137 games, slashing .231/.286/.375 with 29 doubles, six triples and 13 home runs. While the extra base potential was there, for the second-straight season Brown saw his plate discipline numbers drop. While with the Grizzlies during 2013, Brown walked just 33 times while striking out an alarming 135 times, not something you want to see out of a prospect that is supposed to be the organization’s leadoff hitter of the future. To make matters worse, Brown’s ability to steal bases was diminished more by a disappointing 17 stolen bases in 28 attempts, numbers not worthy of a player with his speed tool.
Following 2013, rumblings throughout the organization questioned when, and if, Brown would make it to San Francisco. Giants hitting coach Hensley Muelens was quoted in the March 9, 2014 edition of the San Jose Mercy News saying, “He profiled as a leadoff-type hitter, but he may not be that as we get to this level. We need a guy who gets on base and makes contact. We’ve talked about it within our staff that he might not be that type of guy.”
Although there were doubts about his future within the organization, the Giants placed Brown on the 40-man roster prior to the 2014 season as protection from being selected by another team during the Rule-5 Draft.
While putting him on the 40-man roster was just a minor show of faith, Brown rewarded San Francisco with a bounce-back season in 2014, one that saw him finally get his first taste of the majors and a spot on the postseason roster.
The then 25-year-old outfielder was assigned to Fresno at the start of the 2014 season, where he slashed .271/.329/.394 with 24 doubles, six triples and 10 home runs. He improved his walk total to 36 while cutting his strikeouts down to 119 in 136 games, not drastic improvements, but ones that could be a sign of things to come – although to be a successful leadoff hitter in the major leagues these numbers will need to continue to improve.
Brown did show an ability to steal bases again, swiping 36 in 56 attempts. The 20 caught stealing is a concern, especially for a player with his world-class speed and for a team that does not run often.
But, thanks to his resiliency, Brown was rewarded with a call-up to the Major Leagues when rosters were expanded during September. He played in seven games, finishing the regular season 3-for-7 (.429). Brown showcased his speed when he dropped a bunt down the third base line for his first career hit off of Eric Stults on Sept. 27. He would finish the game 2-for-4 with two singles. Brown did not strikeout during his brief experience at the MLB level, although he did not draw a walk either. He did show a knack for making contact, something Muelens said prior to spring training in 2014 was a concern.
At the start of this year’s spring training it was believed that Brown had a slim chance of making the major league roster. This still appears to be the thought process for the organization, although the door may have opened a little more after right fielder Hunter Pence was hit by a pitch from Chicago’s Corey Black during the second game of the Cactus League.
The Cubs’ prospect threw a fastball that kept moving in on Pence, hitting him on his left arm causing a non-displaced fracture of his left ulna, just above the wrist. The emotional leader of the Giants is expected to miss 6-8 weeks, ample time for a player to make an impression on the San Francisco front office.
Prior to the Pence injury, the Giants were expecting to begin the 2015 regular season by penciling Angel Pagan in center field, Nori Aoki or Gregor Blanco in left field, and Pence in right. Obviously plans have changed some due to the injury. It should be a safe assumption that Aoki will slide over and play right field, the position he has played throughout his MLB career with Milwaukee and Kansas City, which means that Blanco may get the majority of starts in left field. Blanco played a significant role for the Giants last season filling in for Pagan when he was lost to a back injury.
So where does this leave Brown?
At this moment, he is in a battle with spring training invite, Justin Maxwell, who played for the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros; Travis Ishikawa, who sent the Giants back to the World Series in 2014 with his walk-off home run in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series; and Mac Williamson, a prospect that could provide San Francisco additional power in the lineup for one of the final roster spots.
While just eight games into Cactus League action, Brown has flashed some of the tools the Giants coveted when the organization used their first-round selection on him in 2010. Thus far, Brown is slashing .267/.353/.533 with one home run, one double and two stolen bases – he is 4-for-15. Although early, he also has walked more times than striking out (two walks, one strikeout).
This marks the second-straight strong spring for Brown. Last year, with attention seemingly off of him, he went 7-for20, which resulted in a slash line of .350/.500/.400. Brown finished the 2014 Cactus League with one double, two stolen bases in three attempts and four runs scored. He drew four walks while striking out five times.
While most of the focus has been on Brown’s offensive capabilities at the MLB level, the questions that he doesn’t really need to answer are about his defensive capabilities.
Brown’s plus speed allows him the ability to chase down balls that other outfielders may struggle getting to, despite taking some rough routes to the ball at times. During the 2014 season, Brown played 129 games in center field for Fresno. He recorded 346 chances, making four errors, which resulted in a .987 fielding percentage.
Another bonus to Brown’s defensive capabilities is his arm. He has an average to above-average arm for the center field position, which allows him the ability to keep runners from taking the extra base. He has a quick release and is accurate with his throws, giving the relay man able opportunities to cut the throw if needed. During the 2014 Triple-A season, Brown showcased his arm by recording 13 outfield assists. The number is slightly down from his 2013 season, which saw him record 17 assists from center field. Obviously word had spread through the Pacific Coast League (PCL), to not run on Brown.
Brown’s true defensive capabilities have not really been showcased at the MLB level as to date. After receiving his call-up during September 2014, Brown played just 21 innings of defense (six games), including one start in center field. He had seven chances, which he handled without making an error. He failed to record an outfield assist.
Although an obvious small sample-size, Brown finished with a Range-Factor-per-9-Innings (RF/9) of 3.00, better than the league RF/9 of 2.49. The range factor is calculated by taking a fielders putouts plus assists and multiplying it by nine before dividing that number by the number of innings played – 9*(Putouts + Assists)/Innings Played.
After taking things into account, despite the injury to Pence, Brown will more than likely still start the season in Triple-A. If he keeps trending upwards, showing improved patience and a strong contact rate like he did during 2014, than a call-up by the end of May or middle of June could be a strong possibility. If given the chance, the speedster could add a whole different dynamic to the San Francisco offense.