The 2020 Major League Baseball season has been on hold for a month now. With some states finally beginning to slowly open for business, we all sit here waiting for the sports world to return as well.
Pro football teased us with a ‘live’ sporting event over the last couple of days with the annual NFL Draft. The NBA has announced that team training facilities may reopen this coming Friday based on local restrictions. Rumors have the NHL planning a comeback with training camps in June to be followed by some form of game action in July.
As I sit here waiting for my beloved Philadelphia Phillies to return with hopes that this will finally be the year the team returns to contending status, my thoughts wander back over the last several years. Why was an aging team unable to keep winning while transitioning to a new generation of players?
How much quicker the Phillies rebuild from that winning era of 2001-11 would have been if some of the key hitters who the organization was counting on heavily had actually panned out. For instance, players like Darin Ruf.
In 2012, Ruf was considered a top prospect in the organization and for good reason. He led the Eastern League and all of Minor League Baseball with 38 home runs and 104 RBIs while hitting for a .317 batting average that year.
Ruf was called up to the Phillies toward the end of that 2012 season and hit three homers with a .333 batting average. We all thought he could be the heir apparent to Ryan Howard at first base, but that would not come to fruition. Over parts of five seasons, Ruf slashed just .240/.314/.433 with 35 homers and 96 RBIs over 833 plate appearances. Finally traded to the Dodgers in November 2016, he was released by LA just three months later.
Ruf signed a deal to play over in the Korean Baseball Organization where he put up great numbers over three seasons. “It was an awesome experience,” Ruf told Mike Patterson of the Omaha World-Herald earlier this month. “Korea gave me the opportunity to play every day and make some money to support my family.”
Back in January, Ruf struck a deal with the San Francisco Giants in an attempt to return to MLB. He was having a good spring before the shutdown. By the time baseball starts back up he will be 34-years-old and is destined to become what we call a Quad-A player. Had he panned out for the Phillies his natural raw power could have made Ruf a middle-of-the-lineup force over the 2013-18 losing years.
A Phillies 2013-18 master plan may have seen Ruf at first base while across the diamond at the hot corner would have been Cody Asche. Not really a power hitter, Asche hit for a .324 average in his first full minor league season split between High-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading in 2012. He also hit 12 home runs between the two stops, but again that isn’t his forte.
Called to Philly at the end of July 2013, Asche was bounced between third base and left field over the next three years. In parts of four seasons with the Phillies he would slash just .240/.298/.385 with 105 extra-base hits in 1,287 plate appearances.
Granted free agency after the 2016 season, Asche signed with the Chicago White Sox and hit just .140 awhile appearing with them for 19 games in 2017. Asche would bounce across seven different organizations after that, never returning to the big-leagues. In December 2019 he signed with the Minnesota Twins. He went to spring training with them this year but was hitless across five games prior to the shutdown.
At the time, Joseph was considered a top catching prospect. The master plan would have made him the heir apparent behind the plate to the aging Carlos Ruiz. However, multiple concussions forced Joseph to move permanently to first base.
In 2016, Joseph got off to a hot start at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. With an aging Ryan Howard and Ruf each struggling mightily, Joseph was called to the Phillies in mid-May. He would spend most of the remainder of that year in a first base platoon with ‘The Big Piece’ during what would prove to be the former MVP’s final season.
Joseph hit 21 homers that year over just 347 plate appearances which caused some to envision him as that long-term solution at first base as the Phillies turned the page on Howard and Ruf. Given the full-time job for himself in 2017, Joseph hit just .222 with 22 homers over 533 plate appearances.
In his two years with the Phillies, Joseph hit for a .247/.297/.460 slash over 880 plate appearances. Released following the 2017 season, he would sign with the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox over the next two years. Joseph was having a poor spring training with Boston this year prior to the shutdown.
I believe the pressure of a big-league starting job may have gotten to him, and Joseph could never overcome it. Even had he developed into a more solid hitter the coming challenge of Rhys Hoskins would have been hard for Joseph to overcome.
The final player we are going to look at maybe one of the biggest busts in franchise history. That player is outfielder Dominic Brown. At one point in his career, Brown was ranked as the top prospect in all of baseball at a time when there was a guy named Mike Trout also on such lists.
Obviously, the team and scouts throughout baseball felt that Brown had the ability to be a perennial all-star. In the minors it was nothing but success. His lowest batting average was .291 over four seasons and by 2010 Brown was tearing his way from Reading to Lehigh Valley. It appeared to be just a bit of fine-tuning before coming to Philly for good.
With the three-time NL East champs trailing the upstart Atlanta Braves in the standings in late July the Phillies called him up to make his debut. Given a shot to help in 35 games, Brown hit just .210 with five extra-base hits over 70 plate appearances.
While he was obviously over-matched, many wrote it off to first-time jitters as a 22-year-old. His poor performance was ignored as the team won a fourth straight division crown and he was carried on the postseason roster. Brown appeared once in the 2010 playoffs, scoring a run in Game 2 of the NLDS against Cincinnati. He also made pinch-hitting appearances in Games 1 and 4 of the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants.
Brown would struggle mightily once again when given shots during June and July of 2011. But again, he was still just 2-years-old and the Phillies were winning a record 102 games. His failure to produce was once again shoved to the back of most fans minds. However, it became much more difficult to ignore in 2012 as the club fell from contention and he hit for a weak .235 average.
The Phillies tried to walk the line between full rebuilding mode and a more graceful transition for the 2013 season, and Brown was being counted on heavily to make that effort quick and easy. Following a modest start to the season, he caught fire. From May 20 through the MLB All-Star break, Brown slashed .296/.344/.626 and blasted 16 homers, drove in 47 runs, and scored 34 times over 52 games. Brown was rewarded when he joined pitcher Cliff Lee in being named to the NL All-Star team. He appeared to have finally turned a corner and arrived.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. After the All-Star break he cooled down. From the time play resumed on July 19 through the end of that 2013 season, Brown hit just .270 and perhaps more troubling his power completely disappeared with only four home runs over his final 44 games.
Brown never became the star that many once believed. He would never approach the production levels of that lone two-month hot stretch of the 2013 season. Over parts of six years with the Phillies, Brown would slash just .246/.305/.405 with 54 home runs, half of those hit during that 2013 season.
A free agent after the 2015 season, Brown signed the following February with the Toronto Blue Jays. He hit just .239 with seven homers at Triple-A Buffalo in the 2016 season and never got the call back to the big-leagues.
After starting out the 2017 season in the Colorado Rockies organization, Brown was released in mid-July. He would spend the past couple of years playing in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Brown returned to Philadelphia this past off-season with his wife, who is a native of the area, and their children. He has hooked on with an organization teaching young kids to hit and has retired from professional baseball.
“I didn’t understand hitting when I was in the majors, and that’s what made me want to teach,” he said back in February per Mike Sielski at The Inquirer. “I started seeing I had more love for the game because of the downfalls, because of the struggles. Even last year, I was at a field in Laredo, Texas, where you couldn’t hit a ball out to right field, so I had to turn my swing toward center field and left field. All of a sudden, I hit 20 out of my 26 home runs last year to the middle or opposite field, and I’m like, ‘If I did that in the big leagues, I’d still be a Phillie.’ But … life lessons. I love teaching more than I do playing because of the failures.“
This is the biggest bust in my opinion. Brown was supposed to be the next big Phillies star player. His failure to develop may be the single biggest reason why the rebuild took so long. Envisioned as someone who would hit for both average and power for many years, I believe that, much as with Joseph, the pressure of expectations from early success got to him and Brown just wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle it.
At some point in 2012 it’s not hard to envision the Phillies brain trust planning on a transition from their previous winning seasons to an equally bright future. That future would have found Joseph behind the plate with Ruf and Asche on the infield corners and Brown in right field. They all flamed out, and instead of a quick rebuild and turnaround back to the top, the Phillies slipped to a half-decade near the bottom of the MLB standings.