When last we spoke, I was making off-the-cuff wishes for each of the big-league teams for 2007. As expected, some of my wishes offended people. To those of you who took the time to let me know your thoughts, I offer my thanks.
One reader took exception to my “I’ve run out of Gil Meche jokes” comment about the Royals and challenged me to write something more original about the once-proud franchise that calls Kansas City home. Although I still think the Meche signing is a mistake, I also recognize that the team has done a few things right over the past few years. Chief among them is signing outfielder Emil Brown as a minor league free agent in December 2004.
Dan Fox examined Brown in August 2005, as he was just concluding his first season as the Royals everyday left fielder. Dan wasn’t optimistic—for very good reason, namely a complete absence of historical precedents—that Brown would continue his unexpected success.
In the Beginning
Brown was a sixth-round pick of the Oakland A’s out of Indian River Junior College (Fla.) in the 1994 draft. He spent that summer in the Arizona Rookie League, batting .221/.350/.360 at age 19. Rookie League competition is uneven and 32 games isn’t much of a sample, so who knows what those numbers mean.
In 1995, Brown saw his first full-season action, playing center field for Western Michigan of the Midwest League. In more than 500 plate appearances, he hit .251/.337/.320. Brown exhibited decent plate discipline, but very little power. He also stole a ton of bases (35) at a horrible rate (65%). Brown was dismissed as a prospect in Blengino and Bump’s Future Stars and wasn’t mentioned at all in John Sickels’ 1996 Minor League Scouting Notebook.
Despite Brown’s lackluster showing, he was moved up a level in 1996. Positives that year included a strong .303/.406/.502 line at Modesto, developing power, improved base-stealing efficiency (13 for 18), and continued patience at the plate. On the downside, a broken hamate bone in his right hand limited him to 57 games at Modesto (plus another four rehabbing back in Rookie ball).
Brown’s name didn’t appear in that year’s Future Stars, whose top Oakland outfield prospects were Ben Grieve, Mario Encarnacion, and David Newhan. Brown did get noticed by Sickels, who said that “he’s been overlooked by most prospect watchers, but I like him as a sleeper.” Noting that Brown might eventually move to left field, Sickels gave him a grade of B-minus. Other current big-leaguers who received the same grade in Sickels’ 1997 book include Mark Bellhorn, Deivi Cruz, Ryan Dempster, Octavio Dotel, LaTroy Hawkins, A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Redman, and Esteban Yan—no stars, but some useful players.
How Not to Develop a Prospect
In December 1996, Brown was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft. If the Pirates wished to keep the 22-year-old in their organization, they would need to stash him on the major league roster the entire season. Despite the fact that Brown had never even sniffed Double-A, that’s exactly what the Pirates did.
Brown played in 66 games and received 112 plate appearances, just 24 of which came after the All-Star break. At one point the Pirates were using him only for his legs; in August 1997, Brown went 0-for-6 with a walk and five runs scored.
One wonders what Brown might have accomplished if he’d had 500 plate appearances to work with in Double-A. This, of course, is the beauty of the Rule 5 draft.
Getting Back on Track
In 1998, at age 23, Brown returned to the minors, spending most of the year at Double-A Carolina. Despite his lost season in Pittsburgh, Brown didn’t miss a step, batting .330/.401/.496 and retaining all the peripheral skills he’d displayed at Modesto in 1996. He also appeared in a handful of games for the big club.
The following season, at Triple-A Nashville, Brown continued to hit. His .307/.366/.502 line there was enough to get him 14 September plate appearances with the Pirates. It wasn’t, however, enough to keep him in the big leagues. In 2000, Brown split time between Nashville and Pittsburgh. As had become his custom, he raked in the minors, batting .312/.423/.468. With the big club, again, opportunities were scarce, and Brown hit just .218/.299/.336 in 50 games.
In 2001, at age 26, Brown finally left Spring Training in a major league uniform. Stuck behind Brian Giles, Gary Matthews Jr., John VanderWal, Derek Bell, and Rob Mackowiak, Brown started just 30 games, most of them in May. On July 10, the Pirates finally decided to let Brown get on with his life, sending him to the San Diego Padres in exchange for two minor leaguers. After 15 plate appearances with the Padres, he became a free agent and signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. What happened next couldn’t have been encouraging.
A Study in Perseverance
Two teams lost 100 games in the major leagues in 2001. The Pirates were one, the Devil Rays, the other. Despite the obvious room for improvement, Brown could not crack Tampa Bay’s big-league roster. He spent his entire age-27 season playing for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Whether Brown had grown discouraged with his career path or had simply peaked early, most of his offensive skills had slipped since his days in the Pirates system. Brown hit .284/.347/.441—not horrible, but nowhere near enough to get anyone’s attention at his age.
The following season, Brown tried again, this time with the Cincinnati Reds. As he had the year before, Brown spent 2003 at Triple-A, where he hit .295/.343/.463 for Louisville. The Reds were busy losing 93 games that season but happened to be loaded in the outfield, and Brown never saw Cincinnati.
That winter found Brown in a familiar role—looking for work. In January 2004, the St. Louis Cardinals signed him. At age 29, Brown hit .281/.349/.333 in just 19 games before being released. Brown then headed south of the border, where he batted .317/.403/.634 in 28 games for a Campeche Pirates team that went on to win the Mexican League championship. Brown was playing again, and hitting again, but he was a long way from the major leagues.
In August 2004, the Houston Astros signed Brown to a minor-league deal. He finished out the season at Triple-A New Orleans, hitting .337/.386/.533 in 26 games. It wasn’t much, and the Astros granted Brown free agency in October, but maybe it would be enough to get him noticed.
Sometimes the Long Shot Wins
As it turns out, someone did notice Brown. The Royals signed him to a minor league deal in December 2004. Kansas City had lost 104 games the previous season, so maybe this would be his chance. Then again, the Pirates and Devil Rays hadn’t been able to find a use for Brown, and now he was 30 years old, so the minor leagues seemed a more likely destination. Maybe it was time to start thinking about a career change. How many bus rides does a guy have to take before calling it quits?
The Royals, with nothing to lose and for very little investment, gave Brown a chance to win the starting left field job. He hit .389 in spring training, finishing second on the team with five home runs, enough to earn him the gig.
On April 6, 2005, Brown’s name was in the lineup against the Tigers. He was batting fifth. In the top of the first inning, in his first big-league plate appearance in 1,349 days, Brown singled to left off of Detroit’s Mike Maroth. Brown finished the day 2-for-5, and, after a slow start, proceeded to have a season that best is described as improbable, batting .286/.349/.455 in just over 600 plate appearances. He nearly duplicated that effort in 2006 with a .287/.358/.457 line. (League offensive levels were down a bit that season, so even though Brown’s raw numbers were slightly better, when compared to league average they were slightly worse.)
Through his age-31 season, Brown now has a respectable list of comparable players at Baseball-Reference. Among these are Jerald Clark, Gerald Williams, Shane Spencer, Dave Clark, Matt Mieske, and Jacob Brumfield—no studs, but all guys who had legitimate major league careers. For Brown, who through his age-29 season had a career line of .200/.289/.302, that has to be considered a major accomplishment. As Dan pointed out in his earlier article, players with those credentials simply don’t go on to do anything of note.
What does the future hold for Brown? Nobody knows, and in a sense, it doesn’t matter. He’s already overcome some pretty long odds to get as far as he has. With luck, he’ll have a few more decent seasons and be remembered fondly as one of the better players on one of the worst teams of the oughts.
On the grander scale, there are a few points worth noting:
- The Rule 5 draft stinks. Aside from a few notable exceptions (Roberto Clemente, George Bell, Johan Santana, Dan Uggla), it does an incredible disservice to players and organizations. Sticking a kid with no Double-A experience on a big-league roster and letting him rot on someone’s bench, where he cannot develop the skills necessary to compete at higher levels doesn’t help him. It doesn’t help the team that loses him in the draft, and it rarely helps the acquiring team, which wastes a roster spot on someone the manager won’t use and which keeps it from promoting players who can be productive right now. Sometimes the gamble pays off—in the case of Bell, for example, the Blue Jays committed to him after he’d demonstrated mastery of Triple-A at age 23 and he responded in a big way—but by and large, it’s not a smart investment.
- Dedication and perseverance in a player are difficult to measure but count for something. There was no reason whatsoever for Brown to believe that he had a chance to return to the big leagues, but he kept playing. In doing so, he was ready for the opportunity when one presented itself to him. The downside to Brown’s approach, of course, is that the opportunity may never come and he could have ended up spending several years of his life pursuing an impossible dream. Actually, this happens all the time and, like the Rule 5 draft, seldom pays dividends. The real lesson here is that it’s cool that Brown was able to defy the odds and have a career. I’d imagine that beats riding a bus all over the country for months on end.
- Teams with little money and a tradition of losing should remain open to unconventional sources of talent. Brown isn’t a star, but he’s a useful player. A team like the Royals, which has enjoyed precious little success over the past several years, needs all of those they can get. They still have to find impact players in the draft and develop them through the system, but that’s only part of the overall strategy, which is to add value wherever and whenever possible. At any given time, there are players in the talent pool who for whatever reason are overlooked and undervalued. Teams like the Royals should be focusing on these guys with an eye toward expanding the organizational talent base. (Off the top of my head, free agents such as Bruce Chen, Jorge Sosa, Jerome Williams, and Craig Wilson might be worth a shot—there probably are many more who haven’t reached the big leagues or who are buried on someone else’s roster.)
Here’s to the Royals for taking a chance on Brown and giving him the chance to succeed. And here’s to Brown for making the most of his opportunity.
Books consulted include John Sickels’ Minor League Scouting Notebook (1996 and 1997), as well as Tony Blengino and Larry Bump’s Future Stars, and various editions of the Baseball America Almanac.