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August 11, 2009 at 7:51 AM

Russell Branyan looking like a good Mariners fit for 2010

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Lost in all the Felix Hernandez angst, with Jack Zduriencik saying he had yet to open discussions on a long-term deal with the pitcher, is the fact the Mariners (in the same story link) have indicated they want to bring back first baseman Russell Branyan for the 2010 season. At first glance, a guy turning 34 in December doesn’t seem an automatic extension candidate for what is essentially a rebuilding team.
But when you look at it in the context of what this team has been doing, it makes perfect sense.
We mentioned last week that the M’s have been rebuilding while trying to remain competitive at the same time. They continue to do so, staying comfortably above .500 and trying an improbable climb back to the fringes of the wild-card race at five games behind two teams in the all-important loss column. Chances are, this team will get its .500 record. There is also a good chance this “be competitive” thing, without necessarily making the playoffs or contending for them much beyond July, will continue in 2010. All in the name of rebuilding and positioning for a serious playoff charge deep into September.
And Branyan would fit into that very nicely. Who doesn’t like his 27 homers and 67 RBI so far this season? Hard to give up on that type of proven power when this team’s offense struggled so badly throughout much of this year. So, if you lose Branyan in the off-season, you’d have to replace him.
And there is nobody in the minors ready to do that just yet.

We all know about Mike Carp, the Class AAA first baseman acquired from the Mets in the J.J. Putz trade. But Carp is not a proven major league home run hitter like Branyan. He’s still a prospect. A guy with limited major league experience who projects more as a doubles-hitting power bat than a pure home run threat.
Now, I know the value of OPS and how a guy putting up .850 or so through a lot of doubles and moderate home runs can be as valuable as a guy doing the same with more homers.
But a home run hitter does change things in a lineup. Branyan has the ability to change a game with one swing and he’s done it in the majors. Carp is still learning and there is no reason the two can’t learn to co-exist on the same team.
This is looking a lot like Ken Griffey Jr.’s last season. Even if it isn’t, I’m not sure bringing him back again is something the club will entertain. It’s going to need a lefthanded hitting DH next season.
Both Branyan and Carp are hardly wizards with their first base gloves.
There is no reason one can’t play first while the other handles a DH role. You look at Branyan’s splits, he’s at a .937 OPS against righthanders while at a very respectable .793 versus lefties.
That’s a full-time player right there, at DH or first base.
Griffey is at a .728 overall OPS, so keeping Branyan around as a DH would upgrade that spot in the order. The reason I mention Branyan as a DH and not Carp is that throwing a young guy into the DH role is never easy. Plus, I think Carp should get a shot at developing into a future first baseman. We don’t know how much his glove can improve. Might as well find out.
But Branyan makes sense, especially if Griffey and Mike Sweeney both leave this off-season. Both players contributed enormously to a better clubhouse this year and Branyan could help form the corps — along with Jack Wilson — of next year’s veteran leadership. Don’t forget, Adrian Beltre is likely gone as well. But by 2010, some of the younger players will have seen this year how a professional major league clubhouse operates and won’t need the type of hands-on schooling they were given in 2009. That’s the hope, anyway. Still, it won’t hurt to have a big veteran bat like Branyan around for others to look up to.
This is still a growing team. One that needs some proven entities, especially on offense, as it moves forward.
Yeah, Branyan may not prove the obvious value he is this year. He’ll be looking for a raise, no doubt, having earned part-timer’s money his whole career. But so what? This team has a ton of money coming off the books. That’s why it can afford to keep Wilson around at his $8.4 million option, or try to negotiate something a bit lower over multiple years. And it’s why it can afford to offer a reasonable raise to Branyan. Not $30 million over three seasons. But something more reasonable. Maybe two years, $10 million, or something in that ballpark. I’m just guessing now. I have no idea what the market is going to look like this winter. But that second figure is something that could give Branyan a handsome paycheck and a little security without breaking the bank.
The idea in this game is to get production out of every position. Not to have the cheapest producer at every spot. You still have to shell out money to some guys if you want to stay competitive and this team does want that.
And really, the concerns that Branyan will regress to something horrible after one fluke season are a bit unfounded.
He’d always had the home run power. He’s shown the ability to put up an OPS superior to .800 before, only in a smaller number of at-bats. His issue has been playing time and the past fear that exposing him to lefty pitching more often would cause his numbers to plummet. He’s gone a long way towards disproving those theories this year, where his OPS numbers versus southpaws are superior to the overall OPS totals of everybody on the team except Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez.
That’s saying something.
And that’s why, rebuilding or not, if this team wants to be competitive next year, bringing Branyan back is an excellent place to start.



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