SweetSpot: Russell Branyan

The bargain bin

February, 4, 2011
Baseball headlines have been sparse over the past week (with the exception of Andy Pettitte calling it quits). Here in early February, many teams have turned their focus away from offseason roster fidgeting and toward spring training preparations.

There are, however, a few intriguing names still available on the free-agent market. This group of players -- overlooked for various reasons and typically willing to sign for a reduced price -- could be referred to as the bargain bin.

Signings at this stage of the offseason typically don't generate much excitement, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to find a player who can help out. Jonny Gomes, Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome are all examples of players who signed in February last year and went on to make meaningful contributions for playoff teams.

So let's sort through the bargain bin and see which of baseball's remaining free agents might be able to make a difference on the cheap for clubs with postseason aspirations.

Vladimir Guerrero: He earned plenty of accolades last year -- All-Star, Silver Slugger, even a few MVP votes -- but the market has been bone dry for Guerrero this winter, to the point that the Orioles appear to be bidding against themselves on a one-year deal. Teams are no doubt scared of his age, his balky knees and his second-half drop-off in 2010. Yeah, Vlad has his flaws, but he can still hit. I'm surprised there's not more interest.

Russell Branyan: The lefty can really only do one thing: hit home runs. His career BA is .234, he strikes out a ton, he's not good in the field and supposedly not very pleasant in the clubhouse. But boy, can he hit home runs. Sixty-eight over the last three years, in limited playing time, with a .515 slugging percentage. You'd think someone would sign him for that reason alone.

David Eckstein: He's lurking. Like a gremlin in the shadows ready to pounce forth in a flurry of grit. Which fan base will become his unsuspecting victim?

Jose Guillen: He was acquired by offense-hungry San Francisco in an August trade, and went on to post a sub-.700 OPS over 42 games. He was left off the postseason roster and forced to watch his team win a World Series from home, and now he remains unemployed in February. It's been a rough few months for Guillen. He can really crank it when he gets in the zone, but his flaws are evident.

Kevin Millwood: There's some value in a veteran who's likely to give you close to 200 average innings, and that's what Millwood is. He's nothing flashy but he's made at least 29 starts in each of the past six seasons and registered a decent enough 4.37 ERA during that span. For a rotation short on depth, he could prove to be a wise one-year investment.

Jermaine Dye: In 2008, he was one of the key figures in Chicago's dramatic run to the postseason. In 2009, he bashed 27 homers and drove in 81 runs. He sat out last year, but at 37 Dye still might have something to offer teams in need of a right-handed bat.

Jarrod Washburn: A 36-year-old junkballer who's 16 months removed from big-league action, Washburn isn't the most appealing commodity in the world but he was a solid innings-eater up until his disappearance. Prior to sitting out the 2010 campaign, he'd strung together nine straight seasons with at least 149 innings pitched and an ERA never exceeding 4.69. He'd probably take a minor-league deal.

-- Nick Nelson writes Nick’s Twins blog, a blog about the Minnesota Twins.

M's add veteran slugger for pennant push

June, 27, 2010
Hey, I thought the Mariners were supposed be trading veterans away. But instead they do this:
OK, I'll bite ... Why on earth would the M's trade two young players for one old one? Geoff Baker got Jack Zduriencik on the phone:
    What makes this deal so curious is that the Mariners just gave up a promising young outfielder, who won the AA batting title last season, in exchange for an aging bat with a history of back woes at a time they are 14 games out of first place. In a phone conversation, Zduriencik explained his reasoning behind the move.

    "If you look at our team, as we move forward, just about every player who is here now will be here again next year," he said. "We're committed to the development of our players and that goal, that objective, has never changed for us. But part of that development process is also winning games. We want our players to be able to experience winning games this year. And we're trying to do what we can to give them what they need to get there."

In addition to that promising young outfielder (Carrera), the infielder (Diaz) isn't exactly chopped liver, either; he wasn't listed among the Mariners' notable prospects this spring, but he's only 21, has been solid for two straight seasons in the California League, and seems to have at least a moderately decent shot at someday making the majors.

But just moderately. And Carrera, who played well enough last year in Double-A to establish himself as a decent prospect, is hitting .268/.339/.315 this year in Triple-A. He's 23 with room to grow, but didn't figure to beat Ichiro Suzuki or Franklin Gutierrez or even Michael Saunders out of a job anytime soon.

The Mariners probably didn't give up much. It's still a deeply weird move for a team that's 14 games out of first place. Doesn't mean it's wrong. Just means that Zduriencik thinks he knows something the rest of us don't.

Branyan's back makes Rays look smart

March, 11, 2010
When the Rays signed Hank Blalock to a minor-league deal worth roughly a million bucks, my immediate reaction was, "For another million they could have gotten Russell Branyan!"

And what's a million bucks when you're trying to win a World Series?

Not much, but you still have to get the (extra) million bucks on the field. And as Paul Hoynes writes, it's not clear when Russell Branyan will be on the field:

    "Branyan isn't ready yet," said [Manny] Acta. "Russell is still in the process of finishing his rehab."

    Acta said there was no date set for Branyan to play in a game. The Indians signed Branyan to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in February. The deal includes a mutual option for 2011 worth $5 million or a $500,000 buyout.

    Branyan had a career season derailed last year in Seattle because of a herniated disc in his back. He spent September on the disabled list. Questions about his back prevented Branyan from cashing in on his 31-homer, 76-RBI season.

    "I think we knew this coming in ... that he was still finishing his rehab," said Acta. "We have a lot of time left in camp. We're going to do the right thing. We've got to take care of this guy."

The Rays probably figured they had one shot at getting a left-handed hitter to complement Pat Burrell, and they naturally preferred one without chronic back problems. Since 2002, Branyan has averaged 79 games per season. Sometimes he's just been benched, but sometimes his back's been balky.

Granted, Hank Blalock hasn't exactly been Iron Man 3. In 2007, he had a rib removed (seriously) and missed most of the season. In 2008, he had a shoulder injury and missed most of the season. In 2009, he was mostly "healthy" but posted a .277 on-base percentage.

Blalock's cheaper, though, and his career numbers against right-handed pitchers, while far from brilliant, are better than Burrell's. A few decades from now, if somebody's studying the 2010 season he probably won't pay much attention to Blalock or Branyan, let alone the relationship between the two. But this summer I'll be watching them.

Branyan's already won Tribe's 1B job

February, 25, 2010
Hey, a bit of surprising news from the Indians already!

    Russell Branyan passed his physical today and officially became the Indians starting first baseman. That's right he'll be starting at first base.

    "He's going to get the majority of playing time," said manager Manny Acta. "We didn't sign him to be a backup guy."

    That means Matt LaPorta will be on the move to left field. He still could play some first base, but Acta made it clear Branyan is going to be the regular there.

    If LaPorta starts in left field, Michael Brantley could be headed for Class AAA Columbus.

    "Those two young kids (LaPorta and Brantley) are going to be playing every day this season," said Acta.

    The Indians manager just didn't say at what level.

If Hafner's in the lineup, LaPorta and Brantley can't both play every day. And considering that 1) LaPorta's 25, and 2) the Indians gave up CC Sabathia to get him, we should probably assume that LaPorta gets first crack at an every-day job with the big club.

Which is fair enough, I think.

I like Brantley, too. But he's only 22, and while he hit .313 with the Indians last fall, he did not homer and has not showed much power in the minors, either. That's OK. He's super-fast, gets on base and, even in left field, his defense may balance his lack of power.

There's no rush, though. Maybe he's a fourth outfielder in the long run or maybe he's a regular, but right now there's little lost if he opens the season in the minors. Maybe he learns something, and maybe the Indians wind up delaying his arbitration clock by a year.

Sure, it's tough on the kid. He probably figures he's earned a job and with many teams he'd be right. But when the Indians just couldn't pass on Branyan -- at $2 million this season, a real bargain -- Brantley got squeezed out. If he's really good enough to play every day, this will be just a hiccup in his fine career.

(Glove Slap: Craig)

Statistically, Royals stuck in '70s

July, 13, 2009
It took me just a couple of hours to post my reaction to the Royals' trade for Yuniesky Betancourt. It took Rany Jazayerli nearly 24 hours to post his but then, he had a good excuse: Rany's response ran more than 4,200 words. Frankly, I don't know if I recommend reading the whole post unless 1. You're a Royals fan, or 2. You've got a masochistic streak within you. Because this is painful stuff.

A snippet, though:

    Unfortunately for the Royals, last year [Mariners GM Bill] Bavasi was fired -- and remember, this was the same genius who, before the axe fell, cited the departure of Jose Guillen as one of his biggest regrets -- and the Mariners hired the talented Jack Zduriencik as their new GM. Zduriencik had been the scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers, but unlike certain scout-oriented GMs he quickly proved that he was not intimidated by statistical analysis. He created a Department of Statistical Research and hired his former assistant Tony Blengino to run it. The Mariners also hired the brilliant Tom Tango as a consultant.

    This winter, the Mariners and Royals were both looking for first basemen. The Mariners decided to gamble on a player who, despite a .485 career slugging average and being a perennial stathead favorite, had never batted even 450 times in a season and had gone over 300 plate appearances just twice. They signed Russ Branyan to a $1.4 million contract, and Branyan currently is hitting .284/.383/.575 and ranks second in the league with 21 homers despite playing in one of the AL's best pitchers' parks. The Royals, despite having one of the best first base prospects in baseball in Kila Ka'aihue, instead sacrificed a quality reliever in Leo Nunez for the opportunity to pay Mike Jacobs over $3 million. Jacobs had a career .498 slugging average, but his plate discipline was terrible and he was coming off his best season at age 27 – a strong statistical sign that he was likely to fall back. You may recall that the stats community hated the trade. He's hitting .218/.294/.401.

You probably don't need anything more from me, after that. Zduriencik is employing all (or most) of the tools at a modern general manager's disposal; Moore chooses to ignore one of those tools, and winds up with out-machines like Jacobs, Miguel Olivo, and (soon) Betancourt in his lineup. Zduriencik's acquisitions of castoffs Branyan and Franklin Gutierrez -- two of three best players in the lineup -- were right out of the sabermetric playbook. Meanwhile, Moore behaves as if Bill James hadn't started writing "The Baseball Abstract" more than 30 years ago.

Which is how we got where we are: the Royals are, once again, the most ridiculous franchise in the American League. And a hearty congratulations to everyone who made it happen.

(For more on the disconnect between Dayton Moore and the current state of baseball analysis, there's Pos-o'-plenty here and especially here. Oh, and now there's this; at least Moore admits that he doesn't know, and doesn't care. More kudos to all involved.)