Today is the one-year anniversary of what turned out to be a significant moment in current Mariner history. It was on Dec. 3, 2008, that Jack Zduriencik, new on the job as Seattle general manager, made his first free-agent signing. It didn’t exactly cause dancing in the streets. Zduriencik gave Russell Branyan, a 33-year-old journeyman, a one-year, $1.4 million contract, a deal that was met, for the most part, with a collective yawn. In retrospect, however, it should have been the first clue that Zduriencik was both a shrewd talent evaluator and a skilled team-builder.
Branyan worked out beautifully, of course — one of many keys to the Mariners’ turnaround. When the 2009 season ended, the M’s had eight potential free agents, and the likeliest to return, by far, seemed to be Branyan. After all, he was coming off a breakout season — 31 homers in just 116 games. Branyan was grateful to the organization for finally giving him a chance to play every day. He loved the team and the coaching staff. The Mariners were delighted with his left-handed power, and his clubhouse presence. Yes, there was the matter of the back injury (herniated disc) that knocked Branyan out of action after Aug. 29, and bothered him periodically during the season. But the club still wanted him back, and he wanted to be back, which is almost always a recipe for a successful conclusion.
However, it’s now been two months since the season ended. Ken Griffey Jr., it turned out, was the first of the eight free agents to sign. Jack Wilson was the second. And Russ Branyan is still dangling out there on the market. The exclusive bargaining period, in which the Mariners alone could sign him for two weeks after the World Series, passed a couple of weeks ago, and still he sits, unsigned.
Zduriencik, in a conference call today in advance of the winter meetings, mentioned that the club needs a right-handed bat, and said that it could be at first base or DH “depending on what happens with some of our other options.”
I asked Zduriencik specifically where things stood with Branyan, and he said, “I’m sure Russell wants to look at all his options before we make our decision and Russell makes his decision.”
And there you have it. What we know, from his own mouth, is that Branyan fervently wants a multi-year deal. He feels, justifiably, that he’s worked his whole career for this opportunity to obtain a little security, and he doesn’t want to let it slip away. The Mariners, being prudent despite their satisfaction with Branyan, are reluctant to give him anything more than a one-year deal with an option — perhaps a vesting option.
Now Branyan’s agent is surveying the market, seeing if indeed a multi-year deal is out there for him. The Mets and a couple of other teams are showing interest, but no offers so far. It should heat up at the winter meetings next week. According to people close to the situation, Branyan has promised the Mariners that he will give them the final opportunity to match any offer. All things being equal, he wants to come back. If it’s not equal, he’ll have a hard time walking away from security.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and whether there is a team, or teams, willing to give Branyan the contract he seeks, and whether the Mariners would match. Right now, it’s a waiting game.
And so on the anniversary of Jack Zduriencik’s first transaction, it’s still up in the air whether his first acquisition will be back for a second year.
(Associated Press photo)