- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Two years ago, it looked like Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown was a lock to become a future star. He shredded pitchers in the upper levels of the minor leagues, showing power, speed, patience and maturity, and fantasy owners were ready to pounce on the next big thing. Who knew Brown's defense would play a role in hampering his development?
Brown is expected to be demoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley any day now, and the fact that he's making previous Phillies left fielders Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez look like Brett Gardner and Gerardo Parra defensively is one of the primary reasons. Brown came up as a right fielder and seemed competent enough there, but after the Hunter Pence trade, the Phillies moved him to left field. Things don't seem to be going as well there. Brown made two terrible plays late in Tuesday's spring game in Kissimmee, Fla., continuing a trend. A week ago, he sprained a thumb foolishly diving for a fly ball he misjudged and subsequently missed a few days.
The Phillies are confident Brown will hit. He homered later in Tuesday's game, upping his spring batting average to .313, though over a mere 16 at-bats. He also has tripled twice. He hasn't struck out. The offense still seems to be somewhat of a given in time, despite his struggles in the big leagues the past two seasons (over 246 at-bats). Defensively, however, he needs work, and it's the kind of thing you can tell from watching him play, not from a box score. The Phillies know it. Manager Charlie Manuel has been ducking the issue with Phillies reporters, but there's a reason John Mayberry Jr. will be manning left field on Opening Day. He can field his position at least adequately (and he can hit as well!).
Anyway, Brown is not being selected in most ESPN standard leagues, which I think is wise. I think he needs a full season at Triple-A. He's only 24, and we'll hear from him at some point, but it's tough to call him a fantasy sleeper for 2012.
For a team that led the majors in wins last season and has a shot to do so again, the Phillies have many question marks. Let's discuss 10 questions that affect fantasy owners:
1. When will Ryan Howard play? I don't think we see him until at least midseason. I won't put Howard, a trendy mid-round sleeper still recovering from a torn Achilles, on my "do not draft" list, but I'm not exactly targeting him, either. After all, it's not like he's Albert Pujols when healthy. Howard was the seventh-best Phillies option on the Player Rater last season, and 75th in baseball. Now you're chopping off half his season? I suppose it depends somewhat on the type of fantasy team you have, but among the hitters currently being taken after Howard in ESPN live drafts, I'd rather have Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez, Dustin Ackley and probably 20 others.
2. How many games will Chase Utley play? I'll set the over/under at 120 games. I actually like Utley more than most, placing him in my top 50 even though his average draft position is currently at 74. The reason I rank him higher? Because second base is weak in fantasy, and I think Utley will perform well when he does play. I consider him a potential 15-homer, 15-steal guy. He will bat third. Just look for more days off than usual. I'd rather have him in roto leagues than head-to-head formats, by the way.
3. Is Mayberry worth drafting? Don't laugh, but I think Mayberry has a shot to lead the Phillies in home runs. I expect Hunter Pence to do so, but Mayberry has enough power -- even against right-handed pitching -- that he could flirt with 25 long balls. Look for Manuel to use Mayberry regularly in left field while getting Laynce Nix occasional work as well. Mayberry seems borderline draft-worthy to me for 12-team formats.
4. Is Ty Wigginton really going to play first base? Unfortunately, yes. Wigginton is a better fantasy option, and I use that term loosely, than real-life player. He is versatile, but if you don't play any position well, isn't the versatility wasted? Anyway, Wigginton won't take many walks or hit above .270, but 15 home runs from a third base-eligible player -- he could add second base at some point, too -- can certainly help a deep-league owner. Man, as a Phillies fan, I sure hope their pitching is good this year.
5. Can Vance Worley thrive again? Yeah, I actually think the bespectacled right-hander will do well. I watched his first spring outing, and he was awful. He told reporters he was awful. And then on Monday, an angry Worley -- that was his word, by the way -- tossed four perfect innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates' top lineup, striking out eight. Yeah, it's March, but the guy has fire. He's a 22nd-rounder in live drafts, 67th among starting pitchers, but I have him ranked two rounds and 15 pitchers better than that.
6. How will the team's lineup look? Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Utley should start things off. Then it's Pence, Shane Victorino, Mayberry, Wigginton and catcher Carlos Ruiz. I'd hit Victorino second and drop Polanco to seventh, but that's just me. Don't worry, a healthy Victorino can get back to 25 steals regardless. Note that Ruiz is a more attractive get in on-base-percentage leagues hitting eighth; his cumulative OBP the past two seasons is an impressive .385. Who cares if it's because he had 23 intentional walks while hitting in front of the pitcher?
7. Any concerns about closer Jonathan Papelbon switching leagues, talking trash, anything? None at all. ESPN Fantasy ranks him third at closer, and so do I.
8. Can Jim Thome play first base? No, not really. Watched him play there the other day, and it wasn't pretty. I'd spend a dollar in an NL-only league for the 10 home runs, but he's a glorified pinch hitter and DH for interleague road tilts.
9. Will Juan Pierre steal more bases than Thome hits home runs? Yes. Even though Scott Podsednik is outplaying him this spring, Pierre probably will make the team, and I could see 20 steals from him. He'll get some starts in left field, and pinch run for Thome after his ninth-inning walks!
10. Who is the fifth starter? The better Joe Blanton pitches, the more likely it is he'll get traded. If he's on Boston, fine. There's value. If it's Baltimore, not so much. I wouldn't bother with Blanton or Kyle Kendrick in a 12-team league, though.