Hunter Brown: Handling His Own Business
Again this season, that's the situation Mariners prospect Hunter Brown finds himself in.
"I want to start somewhere and get my at-bats," said the well-spoken Brown on his upcoming season. "As far as a position goes, I'm pretty comfortable anywhere, so wherever I can be to play the most, is fine with me."
Brown began his pro career in the second half of the 2002 season after being drafted by the Mariners in the 22nd round of the June draft. In his two-and-a-half seasons with the organization, the infielder has seen his numbers drastically improve.
After hitting .224 in his first taste of the pro game, Brown hit .248 in 2003 with the Inland Empire 66ers. He hit 15 home runs and 68 RBI along the way, but it wasn't exactly what the club had in mind.
In 2004, Brown's bat came alive as the versatile defender proved to be a weapon at the plate, hitting .286 with 36 extra-base hits. Maybe more importantly, he did it while playing solid defense at first, second and third.
The natural step for Brown is to begin the 2005 campaign with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers.
With a potential logjam in the infield, one might wonder how all of the candidates will get enough time to prove their value to the organization.
It is possible that the Rainiers could begin their season with seven players vying for playing time at four positions: Justin Leone, Greg Dobbs, Mickey Lopez, Jose Lopez, Mike Morse and Brown. All deserve an ample shot at being an every day contributor.
In order to claim a spot on the crowded infield, the 25-year-old Brown showed up early to spring camp, aiming to be best prepared for his latest endeavor.
The former Rice Owl arrived in Peoria in mid-February, a month before minor league position players were scheduled to show at the M's spring training facilities.
Brown's goal to be ready is the reason for the mid-winter showing for a "spring" camp.
"I've been here awhile," said Brown. "I like to go into Spring Training on kind of a roll. I don't like to start cold when I get here. I don't want to be pressing the panic button if I don't feel good the first week."
It's this kind of approach that could push Brown to the front of the class of infielders on the Raininers squad.
Even though the weather in Peoria in February didn't allow for a lot of outdoor workouts, Brown and his teammates are settling in quite well, getting their swings ready for 2005.
"We didn't get a whole lot in," Brown said of the uncharacteristically rainy Arizona weather. "We hit a lot in the cage, but as far as hitting on the field, we didn't get a whole lot done. So we weren't as ahead of the game as we thought we'd be.
"I'm just trying to get back in the groove. Trying to get my swing and trying to get comfortable with my footwork on ground balls, getting in good physical shape."
A fast-forward to opening day for the Mariners' Triple-A affiliate, and attempting to fill out the lineup card is a difficult task at this point. With so many qualified applicants and so few openings, how might the club make their decision?
The answer is probably two-fold; future and effort. The Mariners will likely ask themselves, "Which players of this group have the best future?" They will also take a look at the effort level being put forth by each individual.
If Jose Lopez begins the year with Tacoma, he will most certainly be in the lineup on a daily basis. Top prospects with a shot at being all-star quality don't sit on the bench in the minor leagues.
A similar fate for Michael Morse is probably at hand for the M's, as the 22-year-old could have a solid future at the plate, if not in the field, at shortstop.
The toughest decisions will come in regards to Dobbs, Leone and Brown.
Leone and Brown are right-handed hitters. Dobbs is a lefty.
They all play third base. They all can play other positions – Dobbs is adequate in left field and first base, Leone can give the club spot duty in the outfield as well as shortstop, while Brown is solid at second and first base, as well.
Whatever happens, Brown is ready and willing to go wherever the club sees fit, and no matter the position he lands at, his bat will follow with the same trend he's been building for three seasons. Does the approach change, per the position? The 6-foot-2, 205 pounder doesn't see that happening.
"No, I don't think so," said Brown. "I've played so many positions that it doesn't really effect me anymore. First base, I'm still kind of getting acclimated to the position, but I don't think about offense when I'm out there."
Brown also recognizes some room for improvement and would like to put the numbers up to prove the enhancements he has made to his game.
"Last year my power numbers were ok," Brown said of his season in Double-A San Antonio. "But obviously they can improve a lot. More doubles and a couple more home runs would be nice. And to be more consistent, batting average wise. I think I can do better. More improvement."
When asked if he could, or would, play the outfield if it meant more at-bats, Brown responded with a positive, yet resounding statement.
"I can do it," he said. "If they asked me, I'd do it."
The Mariners haven't asked, nor is it likely they ever will. Brown is probably the best all-around second baseman on the probable roster of the Tacoma Rainiers, and is right there with Leone and Dobbs in the fight for the third base gig.
So what might make the difference?
Maybe the fact that Dobbs is a left-handed bat. Maybe the fact that Leone has limitless power and a slight athletic advantage on the other two candidates. Maybe the fact that Brown is better suited at his alternate positions than his competitors and has a similar offensive upside.
Maybe the difference will be that Brown is more prepared to do whatever it takes, at whatever position necessary, to earn his time in the game.
Maybe, due to the even talents of the trio, it'll be decided by each player's ultimate goal.
"I'm here just trying to make a club," said Brown. "I'm trying to make the Triple-A club, so that's probably the No. 1 thing for me. Obviously, to feel good about my hitting and my defense, but I'm here to try and make a team."
Or, maybe, just maybe, Brown's versatility wins out. He's just as good at second as he is at third. Oh, and did I mention he can catch a bit, too?
Jason A. Churchill can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@InsidethePark.com.
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