DUNEDIN, Fla. — In 2009, when he was playing in the Florida State League as a Philadelphia Phillies minor-leaguer, Domonic Brown was told he was about to be traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Roy Halladay.
“I thought I was gone. They were telling me the trade was basically done,” Brown says. “My bags were packed and everything.”
But the Phillies balked, deciding they weren’t willing to give up a talent like Brown, who was one of baseball’s top-50 prospects at the time (Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus would eventually rank him baseball’s fourth-best prospect in 2011) and viewed as a future franchise cornerstone.
Seven years and a lot of adversity later, Brown has eventually found his way into a Blue Jays uniform, as a minor-league free agent signed Thursday afternoon ahead of the first day of full work outs in Dunedin.
“Baseball’s a humbling game,” Brown says, standing at his locker filled with unfamiliar equipment. “I’m just grateful and fortunate to be here.”
Brown lives in Pasco County, Fla., just north of Tampa Bay, so when he heard the Blue Jays had traded Ben Revere this offseason he asked his agent to get in touch with the club.
There was some interest, as the Blue Jays are clearly looking to bolster their outfield depth considering the team’s two failed attempts to trade for Reds right fielder Jay Bruce this spring. Toronto’s front office kicked tires on some other options before officially signing Brown, who enters a crowded competition along with Michael Saunders, Dalton Pompey, Junior Lake and Ezequiel Carrera, all vying to fill the team’s final two outfield spots behind Jose Bautista and Kevin Pillar.
“We’ve got some strong outfielders in here,” Brown says. “I’m gonna have to work to try to win a job, which I’m fine with. I’m all about that.”
Brown did show a very strong flash of the potential the Phillies saw in him during his all-star 2013, when he hit 27 home runs with an .818 OPS. It was his first full season in the majors, and his first full season playing at Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park, where the right field seats can be awfully tantalizing for a left-handed hitter like Brown.
He started sitting on inside pitches, waiting for one he could pull down the line, which stretches only 330 feet. He hit 14 homers at home that season, all of them to right field and eight of them travelling less than 370 feet.
“I got pull happy — it was pretty simple,” Brown says. “I got a little cocky there with the right field porch. Then pitchers started going back away and I didn’t make the adjustment.”
Brown struggled to revert to an all-fields approach, and when he stopped getting pitches he could pull, his numbers suffered dramatically. His OPS dropped to .634 over 144 games in 2014 when he hit only 10 home runs. He spent 2015 splitting time between the Philadelphia, triple-A and the disabled list, managing that same .634 OPS in 63 major-league games. After the season, the Phillies outrighted him off their 40-man roster, and instead of accepting an assignment to triple-A, Brown elected free agency.
“I loved Philly. I wasn’t ready to go. Things just played out that way. They wanted to make a little pay cut with the younger guys,” Brown says. “But I take ownership of it and I know that I wasn’t playing up to my abilities.”
Brown says he’ll be focusing this spring on getting back to hitting the ball up the middle of the field and the other way, instead of strictly into right. He’s been watching at-bats from when he was younger and practising a better approach, trying to remember what he was feeling at the plate.
“The last two years for me have been rough. I’ve been banged up a lot. Not that I’m making any excuses. I just want to go out, get a fresh start, and work my butt off,” Brown says. “I still love the game.”
Things change quickly in baseball. For Brown that’s meant going from one of baseball’s best prospects, to a one-and-done all-star, to a minor-league free agent. He’s hoping there’s some more changes in store, ideally heading in the opposite direction his career path has been on, with the same team he was packing his bags to join seven years ago.
“I want to be consistent and get back to being at an all-star level every single year. That’s one of my goals,” Brown says. “I’ll play wherever the team needs me to play. Whether it’s left-handed catcher or whatever. We can do this little league style. I’m not trying to come in here and be cocky about anything. They told me I was gonna be wearing No. 81, and I was like, put Terrell Owens on me if you got too. I’m just willing to work hard. I’m excited and ready to get things going.”