If you know me, or have read any of my works from the past, you would know that I have an unhealthy man crush on Russell Branyan. The crush continues, too, as he is crushing Triple-A pitching and there are a handful of contenders who need help at first base and/or designated hitter.
It all started in 1997 when I opened my first box of 1997 Bowman Chrome cards (the first Bowman Chrome set). The prize that most sought out in that set was a Kerry Wood rookie card. I failed to get one in my box but my good friend happened to get one. We were so excited. But one of the cards that stuck out to me was the Russell Branyan I pulled.
The card was not a highly sought after one and may have only been a $2-$3 book value card at the time. But what caught my eye was the 40 homeruns he hit in 130 games in 1996 as a 20 year old in A-ball. I was an instant fan. Branyan went on to hit 39 homeruns the next year in only 124 games and I really thought this guy was going to hit 400+ in the Majors one day.
Power has always been the name of Branyan’s game. He is tied for 16th all-time in at-bats per homerun at 15.12 with one of the greatest power hitters of all-time: Mickey Mantle. But with power comes strikeouts, many strikeouts. His career strikeout rate is 32.9% but has been only 29.5 over the past four seasons spanning 1231 plate appearances.
Branyan also walks a lot with a career walk rate of 11.9%. He is the poster child for three-true-outcome and has always had a hard time finding a permanent gig with a team despite a career 111 wRC+ and 120 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. There is also this preconceived notion that he is a bad defender, which is far from true. Over the past four seasons he has a +6.1 UZR in 1633.2 innings at first base and the little time he has spent at third base has not been horrible.
But Branyan is getting up there in age and staying healthy has become a common problem for him. He is 36 years old, has battled back problems for a few years now, and has always struggled against left-handed pitching. For these reasons he has spent his offseason looking for minor league deals with teams and the New York Yankees came knocking at his door this year.
Branyan got a late start to the season to rest his ailing back but has lit Triple-A pitching up to the tune of .309/.438/.655 with 5 doubles, 11 homeruns, and 26 walks in 33 games. Yes, he has struck out 31 times but we knew that would come. His line against right-handers in Triple-A is .346/.481/.778 with 5 doubles and 10 homeruns in 81 at-bats. His overall minor league line this year with the Yankees sits at an impressive .311/.444/.656 with 12 homeruns in 36 games. His range factor as a first baseman in the minors sits at a nice 9.31.
Branyan is not done hitting and can adequately handle first base duties or even be a designated hitter for a team. I would not rule out even allowing him to spot start a few times at third base in the right matchup. Here are a few teams that could benefit from the services of Russell Branyan.
Tampa Bay Rays: You all knew I would say this. The Rays could use his bat and days when Jeremy Hellickson is on the mound play him at third base. Hellickson is a fly ball pitcher and opposing managers stack left-handed hitters against him due to his splits. Besides, with Evan Longoria out indefinitely and the Rays having the 7th worst UZR among all teams at the hot corner an addition of Branyan would not hurt. A platoon of Branyan and Sean Rodriguez at the hot corner is not a bad idea. Branyan could also fill multiple roles for the Rays and spell Carlos Pena at first base and be the designated hitter when Luke Scott needs to rest. The Rays also own the league’s worst wRC+ of 62 at the DH spot.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Branyan would not touch third base for the Dodgers but he could be their first baseman as they push for the playoffs. Branyan can field the position and the Dodgers current .273 wOBA and 70 wRC+ are both 2nd worst in the Majors at the position. James Loney is clearly not getting it done.
Cleveland Indians: Branyan is no stranger to Cleveland. He was drafted there and has played there in parts of 6 different seasons and as recently as 2010. The Indians own a -0.4 fWAR at first base thanks to a -1.6 UZR and the fourth worst marks in wOBA (.293) and wRC+ (83). Casey Kotchman, simply put, has not found the magic in Cleveland.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers own the second worst wRC+ (70) in the league at the DH spot and their first basemen have a 90 wRC+ and -5.7 UZR. Michael Young can be blamed for some of the problem at each position. Branyan could be a pleasant surprise for this team if they do not want to trade any top prospects for players at the deadline.
Branyan has his limitations and is on the wrong side of 30 but he is still hitting the ball over the fence and drawing a lot of walks while playing adequate defense. He could help any one of these teams struggling for some offense in the area that Branyan can help. It is time to free Russell Branyan.
-Jonathan C. Mitchell can be found writing about the Tampa Bay Rays at DRaysBay and the Florida Marlins at ESPN’s SweetSpot site Marlins Daily. You can follow him on twitter at @FigureFilbert. Be sure to follow MLBdirt at @MLBdirt
Filed under: Digging Deep - Analysis Tagged: | Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman, Cleveland Indians, Evan Longoria, James Loney, Los Angeles Dodgers, Luke Scott, Michael Young, Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees, Russell Branyan, Sean Rodriguez, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers