'I belong here': Brown eager to thrive after long journey to bigs

March 31st, 2024

ARLINGTON -- allowed himself a moment to reflect on his path to the Majors when he was en route to Texas on Saturday morning. Sitting next to his wife on the flight, the Cubs rookie pulled up some pictures from when his professional journey began.

“The guy who got drafted, the 17-year-old, I went through some photos,” Brown said. “It's pretty crazy.”

On Saturday night, Brown found himself on the mound at Globe Life Field, making his Major League debut in the Cubs’ 11-2 loss to the World Series-champion Rangers. The young righty was summoned from Triple-A Iowa after lefty Justin Steele, Chicago’s Opening Day starter, was shelved on the 15-day injured list due to a hamstring strain.

No player can predict their path to the big leagues, so stepping into a spot vacated by the Cubs’ rotation leader two games into this season was not on Brown’s mind. Then again, Brown was a 33rd-round pick by the Phillies back in 2017. His was never going to be a conventional route up the Minor League ladder.

“Once you're here, anything can happen,” said Cubs pitcher Jameson Taillon, who was the second overall pick by the Pirates in the 2010 Draft. “I've never looked at my Draft position as a positive or negative. It just kind of is what it is. But to be a 33rd rounder, obviously, he put in the work and [is making his] debut.

“I mean, I don't even think there's 33 rounds anymore, so it's pretty sweet.”

Taillon was correct: There are only 20 rounds in the current iteration of the Draft. Brown climbed up Philadelphia’s system and was then traded to the Cubs at the 2022 Deadline for veteran reliever David Robertson. Heading into this season, the 24-year-old righty was ranked No. 10 by MLB Pipeline in the Cubs’ deep Top 30 Prospects list.

Brown made his big league debut in the seventh inning, shook off a leadoff walk to Evan Carter and logged a clean frame. His first career strikeout came via a sharp curve that dropped under the bat of Josh Jung. Things then spiraled on him in the eighth, when a handful of defensive miscues and some hard contact ignited a six-run outburst for Texas. That included a two-run homer by Jung in their second meeting.

“That first inning was nails,” said veteran starter Kyle Hendricks, who lasted just 3 2/3 innings in his first start of the season. “Things happen, you know? It starts going fast on you. My first inning, I walked three guys and gave up three runs. There's a lot that happens.

“It was so cool to see him out there. He's going to have such a long career, man. Get comfortable up here. This is just the first of many.”

In all, Brown was charged with six runs in his 1 2/3 innings, but he averaged 97.2 mph on his fastball, per Statcast. While the righty’s curveball netted four whiffs out of eight swings by the Rangers, it was inconsistent in his first taste of The Show. The good news is Brown -- a candidate to slide into Steele’s rotation slot -- is now past all the nerves that go hand in hand with a debut.

“You've got to turn the page really fast,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “When you get knocked down, you've got to get back up. That's how the game works. It was an outing where we're just trying to get through the game and get his feet wet. And some good hitters made him pay.”

Brown cruised through Double-A and Triple-A through the first few months last season (3.81 ERA with 120 strikeouts in 85 innings) and looked poised to break into the Majors down the stretch. That was before a left oblique/lat injury cost him all of August. In September, as Brown dealt with workload restrictions, he posted a 9.39 ERA in his final seven outings.

This spring, Brown turned in a 0.64 ERA in five Cactus League appearances, striking out 12 in 14 innings. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa on March 8, but earned two late starts (March 16 against the Angels and March 23 against the Brewers) and impressed. He struck out Mike Trout in four scoreless frames in one start and logged another four scoreless in the other.

“The fact that I'm here right now,” Brown said, “being in the position that I was when I was drafted, and coming through the Minor Leagues as more of a suspect than a prospect, things don't really work out the way that someone says they're going to work out.

“Actually being here today, I can believe that I'm here. That's really cool. I belong here. It's affirmation, for sure.”