Failed Prospect: Dee Brown
One of the biggest prospect busts of the last decade is failed Kansas City Royals prospect Dee Brown.
Dermal Brown was drafted in the first round in 1996, 14th overall, out of high school in New York. He got into just seven games in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, going 1-for-20. Extremely toolsy, he was considered highly-promising due to his power/speed combination, and wasn't quite as raw as a lot of cold-weather high school players. I didn't give draftees grades back then but in retrospect his scouting reports would have earned him a Grade B or B-.
Brown moved up to Spokane in the Northwest League in 1997, hitting .326/.404/.564 with 13 homers and 17 steals in 298 at-bats. Power and speed were quite evident, and he drew 38 walks in 298 at-bats against 65 strikeouts. Scouts were also impressed with his work ethic. I didn't give short-season players letter grades back then, but he'd get at least a Grade B now and perhaps a Grade B+.
1998 saw Brown assigned to Wilmington in the Carolina League. He hit .258/.347/.403 with 10 homers, 26 steals, and 53 walks with 115 strikeouts in 442 at-bats. He also got into five games for the major league club. Brown got off to a really slow start, plus Wilmington was death for hitters, so his performance was actually pretty solid. At this point his biggest problem was defense, as he looked very sloppy with the glove according to scouts. I gave him a Grade B-, but noted that he could put up monstrous numbers at Double-A Wichita.
Brown began 1999 at Wilmington, hitting .308/.431/.548 in 61 games. Promoted to Wichita, he went on a real tear, hitting .353/.440/.591. He combined for 25 homers and 30 steals and walked 79 times on the season. Power, speed, strike zone judgment, fairly good strikeout rate, just 21 years old. There were still doubts about his glove but everything else looked excellent. I saw him play a lot for Wichita, and he was so far above the league it was ridiculous. He hit everything, fastballs, breaking stuff, changeups. I gave him a Grade A and didn't look back.
Brown went to spring training in 2000 with a shot at an outfield job, but he didn't make the roster and got sent to Omaha to work on his glovework. He sulked, got into an argument with his manager, even got suspended at one point. Remember, his work ethic and attitude were considered positives before this point. He recovered enough to have an OK year in Triple-A, hitting .269/.324/.491 with 23 homers and 20 steals, showing the power/speed combo again. His plate discipline took a big hit, with just 37 walks against 112 strikeouts. I didn't lose faith and gave him a Grade B+, but it was clearly a disappointing season.
The Royals gave Brown a job in 2001 and he hit .245/.286/.350, much less than expected, in 380 at-bats. He ended up back in Omaha in 2002, and has spent the last five years bouncing around the upper minors. His last significant major league playing time was in 2004 when he hit .259/.293/.349 in 195 at-bats for the Royals. His career line in the majors is .233/.280/.333 in 814 at-bats.
What the hell happened here?
Picking through the Rotowire archives, I find this quotation from former Royals GM Allard Baird on March 26th, 2004. GM Allard Baird said "I still believe he has the physical attributes to hit, but he needs to turn those attributes into performance. To this point, he hasn't."
Living near Kansas City and going to a lot of Omaha and Wichita games during Brown's tenure, I saw a lot of Brown at all three levels, and I think Baird was right, the attributes were there. The bat speed was always there, and when his swing was locked in, he showed power to all fields, wasn't a strict pull hitter, and handled both breaking stuff and fastballs well. He would go on terrific hot streaks at times. He showed the ability to control the strike zone at least adequately. This is the player I saw in Double-A and Triple-A, a guy who looked like a solid major league regular outfielder at worst.
And then he'd move up to the majors and he didn't look like the same guy. His swing would be. . .trying to find a word for it. . .less fluid? Awkward? Almost constricted in a way? He didn't look like he was having fun, he didn't look relaxed. He would press. He'd be either too passive or too aggressive, unable to find a middle ground. His body language in the majors was very different than in the minors. Nagging injuries didn't help, but even when healthy he just didn't look like the same confident player I saw in the minors.
The 2000 Omaha sulking went away quickly enough that the organization still liked him a lot as a person, and from what I heard from local sources his problems post-2000 weren't work-ethic related. But I do think perhaps there was something psychological going on, in the sense that he was never able to get truly comfortable in the majors. Why that happened, I don't know.