A Stopgap Rightfielder
Initially, I was very much against a journeyman like Emil Brown making the Royals’ 25-man roster on the merits of his spring training performance. As I’ve written before, I think allowing things like “open competitions” for everyday jobs in camp will lead teams to make more bad decisions than good ones. After all, a 50 at-bat stretch is a 50 at-bat stretch whether it comes in early March, making it more noticeable but less meaningful, or in the middle of July, making it less noticeable but more meaningful. Anyway, when the Kansas City Star hasn’t been writing about Guy Hansen’s work this preseason, Brown’s been the story in Surprise, as he’s demolished Cactus League pitching to the tune of a .455 batting average and a Bondsian .848 slugging percentage.
Needless to say, the Royals are absolutely enamored with that performance, and Brown’s making it very, very hard on them to not keep him over a guy like, say, Abraham Nunez. In fact, GM Allard Baird likes what he’s done so much, he even dropped the possibility that Brown could be the starting right fielder on Opening Day. A few weeks ago – before I’d done any research on Brown – that was my greatest fear, the Royals just handing out a starting job like candy. Totally eschewing a player’s past and focusing only on what he’s done against several minor league pitchers in meaningless baseball scrimmages has kick-started more than one undeserved major league career, and I didn’t want to see that happen (again) to the Royals.
Fortunately, my fear proved to be an irrational one for a couple of reasons. For one, when talking baseball with people, I often bring up that while a result is important, understanding the process used to achieve that result is almost as important. In the case of Emil Brown, Baird clearly doesn’t like him only because he’s hit .455 so far. In the Star story I linked earlier, he was quoted as saying the following:
“If this kid keeps having the same approach, he might be the everyday guy (in right field). I don't care about numbers in spring training. I care about the approach.”While the 30-year-old Brown’s certainly no “kid,” I was encouraged by both reading this in today’s Star and by hearing Baird say the same thing in a radio interview about the other Royals players who’re “on the bubble,” so to speak. Of course, I’m taking him at his word and assuming that Brown’s shown the ability to work himself into hitters’ counts and take a walk if it’s presented to him. (I’ve yet to find a web site that lists walks among its spring training statistics.) At any rate, virtually nobody can post an isolated slugging percentage of nearly .400 by swinging at anything thrown in the vicinity of home plate, so Brown’s certainly doing something right.
As the article continued, Baird went on to say that he views Brown as “an undervalued player,” and that the organization sees him as another Raul Ibanez. My curiosity was peaked at this point because Ibanez was undoubtedly Baird’s finest “free talent” pickup to date, and the Royals parlayed him into a couple of draft picks when he became expensive and returned to Seattle. From an offensive standpoint, it’s actually pretty creepy how similar their minor-league unadjusted rate stats are:
Apparently, Baird knew what he was talking about when he made that comparison. As if identical batting averages and on-base percentages weren’t enough, the similarities don’t stop there. Although the Royals picked up Ibanez when he was 28 compared to Brown’s 30 years of age, both players didn't initally show an inability to even make good-enough contact to hold down a steady job on a major league roster. At the same time, both players showed a reasonably good knowledge of the strike zone even through their struggles. However, Brown’s also struck out in roughly one-third of his major league at-bats, a fraction that will have to come down. As a non-power hitter, so he can’t get away with that.
As their efforts to acquire a guy like Austin Kearns have apparently stalled, the question becomes how Brown will fit in with the Royals initially, assuming his hot start, speed, and defensive prowess gets him a job. Nunez was an organizational favorite due to the many, many things he can do on a baseball field, but all he’s shown so far is an ability to draw a lot of walks. Being able to do that is great, but after his terrible spring training and terrible 221 at-bat trial with the Royals late last season, it’s pretty apparent that even hitting .250 is going to be a huge challenge for him. Drawing all the free passes in the world doesn’t do anything if a player can barely lift his average above the Mendoza line. Ken Phelps All-Star Aaron Guiel has probably done enough to get one more opportunity, although I suspect that his 2003 season was likely his career season. At 32 and with poor eyesight, he would best serve as a platoon partner for Brown, should the Royals choose to go that route.
The point is that among the guys not making guaranteed money, Emil Brown just might be the best of a sorry lot. The likelihood is that he won’t hit and will therefore lose his job, but there’s definitely an Ibanez-esque upside, too. Let’s just hope that if the former proves to be true, the Royals won’t continue to hang on, waiting for the latter to happen.