As a minor-league manager, Robby Hammock’s favorite player was always Socrates Brito.
The 25-year-old outfield prospect, whom Hammock managed in Visalia (High-A) in 2014 and in Mobile (Double-A) in 2015, was a model image of what a baseball player should be.
But whatever happened to Brito? And why, since then, has the Dominican-born slugger managed just 97 big-league plate appearances?
The once-heralded Diamondbacks prospect made his MLB debut back September 2015 when he posted a .303 batting average to go along with four extra base hits in 18 games.
While in the minors, Brito not only impressed Hammock with his play, but also with his own Socratic method, a calm and consistent demeanor.
“He’s one of the mentally strongest guys I know,” said Hammock, now a quality control coach with the Diamondbacks. “He would never complain about anything. I used to tell everybody he was my favorite player when I had him because he never said anything. He just went out and did what he was supposed to do, and it didn’t matter.
“You would never know if he went 4-for-4 the night before or if he went four games with 10 punch-outs. He was the same guy every day. He did everything right and played the game the same way every night. He’s that perfect type of model for what you want guys to be."
A return to health
Brito has been riddled with injuries for almost exactly a calendar year. On March 8 of last year — during spring training — the outfielder underwent surgery to repair a dislocated finger that allowed him to appear in only 78 games with Triple-A Reno in 2017.
After a short season with the Aces, Brito played in the Dominican Winter League and again suffered a finger injury on Dec. 17 that sidelined him until spring training began in February.
Now, with injuries in the rearview, Brito is trying to rediscover himself in big-league camp.
“These last few years I just haven’t been healthy,” Brito said. “With all the injuries, it was hard to come back but now I’m healthy. I worked to get back to where I was in the past and I’m trying to be better and get better every day.”
Although he has registered just three 2018 Cactus League at-bats, Brito impressed when he sent a mammoth home run in Monday’s 10-3 win over the San Diego Padres.
“Hitting a home run like that off a tough lefty,” Hammock said. “It was a great at-bat. It’s definitely something that will be a nice little kickstart for him moving forward.”
Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley said he could tell the home run was a huge confidence boost for Brito, who has been undergoing rigorous rehab since his injury in December.
“Doing it in big-league camp and doing it with guys who are going to make the team,” Bradley said. “And maybe he is going to make the team, but you know you’re doing it in front of your boys, your coaches and in front of the people you want to play for the whole time. To have that feeling and that moment, I’m sure he just wants to get back in the box and do it again.”
Hammock, who knows Brito as well as anyone in the Diamondbacks organization since Brito signed with the organization as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, thinks the outfielder has the tools to be one of the best players in baseball.
“I saw him early on when he was on these fields in extended (spring training) and you just saw the talent and the raw ability out there,” Hammock said. “From being out here missing fly balls as an 18-year-old kid to where he’s at now is amazing.
“Brito has flashes — whether it’s a week, two-week flash — where he looks like the best player I’ve ever seen. Some of the things he can do is unbelievable.”
But injuries have made it difficult for Brito to put it all together. Hammock, who dealt with his fair share of ailments as a player, is confident that Brito can turn it around.
“I went through it myself when I missed an entire season due to shoulder surgery,” Hammock said. “There’s phases through every part of it where everything’s fresh at the beginning and you’re so excited — but then the actual grind kicks in where you’re focused on rehab stuff and inching your way back into the game.”
Brito said he isn’t yet fully healed from his latest finger injury, but he’s still happy with the progress he’s made.
“The first thing is doing a lot of rehab and a lot of work,” Brito said. “That’s what I did – going to rehab, working out in the gym and trying to get back in shape. (Thankfully), I’ve been able to get healthy and get back in shape. I’m trying to do my best now and hopefully I’ll make the team.
“I don’t feel 100 percent now, but I feel good. I think I’ll be back to how I was in the past if I keep working hard and doing what I’m doing.”
So, what exactly are the expectations for Brito in 2018?
“I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I think he has the potential to be one of the top players in the game,” Hammock said. “He’s behind the eight-ball right now with being hurt for as long as he has and not having consistent at-bats. It’s hard to do, but if anyone’s up for it, there’s no doubt he is.”
Bradley remembers a start he made back in September 2016 against the Colorado Rockies. With the Diamondbacks trailing 2-1 in the seventh, Brito smacked a three-run home run off Colorado’s Jon Gray to get Bradley off the hook. Arizona won 8-5.
The two were teammates in 2016 in Reno, and Bradley said he sympathized with Brito having to deal with two separate finger injuries in less than a calendar year.
“The last few years I’ve felt really bad for him,” Bradley said. “He’s had the fingers and been missing time. I go back to (2016) when he got called up, he hit a homer in one of my starts against Jon Gray and gave me a win. He’s always been a guy where I want to see what we can do when he’s healthy and with a full season.
“He hit a homer (on Monday) out of the stadium. I’m excited for him and I think he’s a great player.”
Of course, the path for Brito to crack the Diamondbacks roster on Opening Day is a crowded one. Arizona already has a surplus of outfielders: A.J. Pollock, David Peralta, Steven Souza Jr., Yasmany Tomas, Jarrod Dyson, Chris Owings and Jeremy Hazelbaker.
Diamondbacks pitching prospect Braden Shipley, who has been teammates with Brito for parts of four seasons since Shipley was drafted in 2013, has seen the outfielder’s growth and maturity over the years.
If he puts it all together and stays healthy, according to Shipley, the rest of the league should be on notice.
“I’ve always said that confidence comes from success,” Shipley said. “So, for him to have a little success here early in the spring, it’s huge for him. I think if he can continue to keep the ball rolling a little bit and continue to feel healthy and hitting, it’s just going to give him more confidence.
“And a confident Socrates Brito is a dangerous one. So, look out.”