By: Noah Frank
Oh, the offseason. The lack of daily baseball at Chukchansi Park leaves those of us who work here itching to get a jump on next year. And so, as we did last offseason, we will begin looking at the players making their way through the farm system who seem likely to spend at least part of the 2012 season here in the Central Valley. There will be names you most likely recognize, as well as those you probably do not. We’ll start this year’s crop with one that most Grizzlies and Giants fans know by now: Gary Brown.
Even if he begins the season at Double-A Richmond, which seems likely, given the logjam in center field created by the likes of Justin Christian, Darren Ford, Tyler Graham, the newly-signed Gregor Blanco and possibly Andres Torres, Brown will be a name often on the tips of Grizzlies fans’ tongues next season. That expectation simply comes with the territory when you are a first-round draft pick, as Brown was in 2010. Just ask Madison Bumgarner (’07) and Buster Posey (’08), or the recently departed Zach Wheeler (’09), who now faces the additional pressure with the Mets of being the top prospect traded for a star in Carlos Beltran.
With Beltran himself quite possibly heading elsewhere this offseason, that will put pressure on Brown to live up to large expectations, and will no doubt lead to fans calling for his promotion to the Majors sooner rather than later.
Brown has certainly done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding him, but the Giants were careful with the Cal State Fullerton product in his first season. After assigning him straight to High-A San Jose in 2011, Brown was given the entire season to prove what he could accomplish in the California League. All he did was post a line of .336/.407/.519, rapping out 61 extra-base hits, stealing 53 bases, and scoring a mind-numbing 115 runs in just 131 games for the minor Giants.
As we always do at Yard Work, we sought out the expertise of someone who has seen what Brown can do close-up. We spoke briefly about Brown a couple weeks prior with former Grizzlies hitting coach Ken Joyce, who served in the same role for Brown’s Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, whose regular season ends today. But we went into greater depth with Joe Ritzo, the radio voice of the San Jose Giants, to learn more about what to expect out of the young centerfielder as he moves through the system. Ritzo pulls no punches when describing the role Brown played for San Jose, picked as the High-A Team of the Year, last season.
“He was our MVP,” says Ritzo, and it’s easy to see why. “Everyone knows about his speed and his defensive abilities, which were evident on a daily basis, but he had power too.”
Indeed, Brown swatted 14 home runs on the season. He also absolutely wore out left-handed pitching, batting .459 with a .685 slugging percentage (!) against southpaws last year. Not bad for a leadoff hitter.
Ritzo also compares Brown’s speed to the likes of Grizzlies single-season and franchise stolen base leader Graham, as well as Ford. Those two have been considered the fastest prospects in the system over the last few seasons, so the bar has been set high in the speed department before Brown ever sets his fleet feet in Fresno. But how does he compare to recent top draft picks at other positions?
“I’ve been here five or six years and there’s nobody quite like him and how he plays the game,” says Ritzo, which is high praise considering the top prospects that have roamed the diamond at Municipal Stadium the last few years. When I ask Ritzo to compare Brown to the likes of Posey and Bumgarner, he provides some interesting perspective.
“I don’t think his personality was really like any of those players,” he posits. “But what you see is that desire, working so hard before games, the competitive edge that you might see in Buster and Madison that separates them from others. The mental ability that those guys had, Gary has it as well.”
Brown, as mentioned earlier, had the advantage of coming through a high-caliber college baseball program at Cal State Fullerton, the same school that produced Brett Pill. Fresno fans have seen that the experience and maturity gained from those years has paid dividends for Pill, and they seem to be doing the same for Brown, according to Ritzo.
“There’s something extra when you watch him play that you just feel confident that he’s going to have a long and successful Major League career,” says Ritzo. “You can’t predict that kind of Major League success with much certainty very often with guys at the Single-A level.”
The only tick on Brown’s stellar 2011 performance can be seen with a deeper look into his month-by-month numbers. He batted .333 (including a .385 mark in August and a .397 clip in May) or better in every month of the season except one— a glaring .202 performance in June. In cases like these, it’s important to look for answers beyond the box scores, which is where someone like Ritzo comes in handy to provide context for such a slump.
“We made a lot of roster moves right about that time (early June), including sending Hector Sanchez to Fresno, and Gary was arguably playing better than any of those guys,” explains Ritzo. “He was maybe anticipating that call-up, and when he didn’t get the call it was a little disappointing, so he hit a bit of a lull. It was expressed to him that the organization wants him to stay in San Jose the whole year.”
While the San Francisco brass may have taken the conservative route with Brown in 2011, Ritzo does not expect them to necessarily continue to do moving forward.
“You get the sense that they won’t go that same route this year, especially if he’s starting the season in Richmond,” Ritzo says. “I would think if he starts hot would make it to Fresno before too long. If he has anything close to the kind of year that he had in San Jose, he’ll move quickly through the system.”
Here’s to hoping Fresno fans get a glimpse of what Brown can do sooner rather than later.