Infielder Hunter Brown (Photo/Max Waugh)
FRESNO, Calif. - Hunter Brown stood in the Tacoma Rainiers clubhouse before Thursday’s season opener, dressing for a game he didn’t know if he’d get a chance to play in. Absent from the starting lineup in game one, Brown appeared unfazed. He’d faced similar circumstances in previous seasons, only to thrive in the long-run, and this one was no different.
“Ever since I’ve been drafted, I’ve never really been given a spot,” said Brown, a 2002 draft pick by Seattle entering his fourth season in the organization. “Someone’s always gone down and I’ve ended up going in. I’ve had 400-450 at-bats every year. The way it’s worked out, it’s been great and I don’t see this being any different.”
The opening day infield had Aaron Rifkin at first base, Ramon Santiago at second, Michael Morse at shortstop and Justin Leone at third. Brown, according to Rainiers’ manager Dan Rohn, was “the utility guy.”
“From what I can tell I guess I’m going to be in a utility role for a while,” Brown said on Thursday. “I’m assuming that’s where I’m going to be, and when I get in there I’m going to have to produce.”
Capable of playing just about anywhere on the field, Brown’s greatest talent might be his versatility. In the past, that’s worked to his advantage in many instances, but also worked against him. The very mention of a “utility infielder” often has a stigma attached that he “does everything well but nothing really well.” Brown, a graduate of Rice University in Houston, Texas, doesn’t fit into that category.
Roy Acuff, the long-time radio announcer for the San Antonio Missions, called Brown one of the best defenders he’s seen in all his years in the booth last season. Not just for his versatility, but for his ability to make play after play. A natural third baseman, Brown played mostly at the hot corner at Double-A last season but also filled in and made a seamless transition to both second base and first base.
How valuable is that? You can’t put a price on it.
The 25-year-old also showed continued improvement at the plate and had a breakout 2004 season while with the Missions. Brown displayed plate discipline and the approach paid off; he finished the year with a .286 batting average to go with 13 home runs, 19 doubles, 52 RBI and 20 steals.
Hardly the numbers of a utility man.
Friday, right before the second game of the season was about to begin, Brown got the break had hoped for a day earlier when Leone got word he was getting called up to the big leagues. For the time being – Leone’s stay with the Mariners is expected to be temporary – Brown is back in the starting lineup.
You won’t hear any complaints coming from the versatile Texas native.
“You want to play, wherever you are,” said Brown. “All you can ask for is an opportunity. The level of competition raises a little bit in Triple-A, but I’ve improved too. As long as I can get in there and get an opportunity to play, I’m confident about it.”