Sometimes you close a window and your front door is jarred open with explosives. After the Rays designated Dan Johnson for assignment, the search for an alternative at the position began. Tommy covered the lacking in-house options just last night. Then, earlier today, by the grace of Kevin Towers, Russell Branyan was released.
Branyan is no stranger to the Rays. He spent the 2006 season here before Tampa Bay shipped him to the playoff-pushing Padres. The pair again engaged in flirtation after the 2009 season, when the Rays were looking for cheap left-handed alternatives to Pat Burrell, but Branyan took his talents to Cleveland, citing concerns over playing time. There was no confirmed interest this offseason, as Branyan wound up signing with the Diamondbacks on a minor league deal.
In Arizona, Branyan played sparingly. The Diamondbacks lost Adam LaRoche through free agency and decided to approach the season with a three-man rotation at first base—Juan Miranda, Xavier Nady, and Branyan, speaking not of Brandon Allen who is still trapped in Triple-A. Branyan’s starts came few and far between, and he started consecutive games only four times.
Branyan compiled 69 plate appearances and registered a .210/.290/.339 slash line. Nothing special, sure, but Branyan has hit .243/.334/.504 since the 2008 season began play, with 69 home runs in a little over 1,150 plate appearances. Even 2010, a seemingly down year, Branyan managed to hit .237/.323/.487 with 25 homers between Cleveland and Seattle.
Enough with the background information, though, the skill set is what’s important here. Branyan is a three true outcomes player. During that 2008-2011 timeframe, about 47 percent of Branyan’s plate appearances ended in a strikeout, home run, or walk. As a reference point, Carlos Pena ended 48 percent of his Rays plate appearances with one of those three outcomes.
Without Branyan’s power, his value is non-existent. As you would imagine, a guy who fans in nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances isn’t going to hold a worthwhile batting average, and while he walks at a dandy rate (over 11 percent), it’s not enough to justify his playing time if his stroke is sapped of its power. When Branyan is at his best, his ISO are exceeding the .250 mark and he is hitting a ton of flyballs (with around 20 percent of those clearing the fence).
And therein is why Arizona released him. So far, Branyan hadn’t shown that same pop. Branyan only has one home run this season and his ISO is .129—an uncomforting fact: the sum of Dan Johnson’s and Casey Kotchman’s ISO is .121 (only James Loney, at .043, is a first baseman with a lower ISO than the Rays pair an more than 50 plate appearances this season). Even during a down stretch—and make no mistake, Branyan might be done, but I don’t think anyone who would say such a thing can do so at this point with confidence, or, alternatively, should say so with the utmost confidence—Branyan is offering more power than the Rays incumbents.
The transaction cost involved is simple. Branyan would make the prorated league minimum and the Rays would have to create a 25- and 40-man roster spot (Justin Ruggiano would appear to be the most likely to go). Branyan has dealt with numerous back issues over the years, so his defensive chops and durability can be questioned too, but the cost and talent here dictates the Rays should probably take a look at those medical records for themselves.