The Mariners are in a precarious situation. They are four games over .500 and four games out of first place in the American League West. It has put them into the gray area of teams that are neither buyers nor sellers approaching the trade deadline.
The Mariners have several players for whom they are at risk or receiving no compensation if the player is to leave, and have reached the peak of their trade value in all likelihood.
They also have players who are young, and in the years where their potential, however unfulfilled, has kept their trade value at a high point.
They also face a dilemma when targeting players. Young, pre-free-agency players will require the M’s to give up a lot more compensation than a proverbial “rent-a-player,” while many such players can be had for little compensation in an uncertain economy.
Local outlets have called for the Mariners to be both buyers and sellers, a team that essentially shuffles players around, adding to roster turnover, and risking a compromise in chemistry.
The Mariners owe the unquantifiable attribute a lot of their success, but the team has several positions where it can make tangible improvements.
So with Jack Zduriencik approaching his first trade deadline as a general manager, each installment of “Casey at the Bat” from now until the trade deadline will profile a possible Mariners trade piece or target and offer some insight as to what they are worth, who may want them, and what the Mariners should do, beginning with Russell Branyan.
Branyan has been a surprise contributor this season. While his career splits showed that he could be a valuable platoon player against right-handed pitchers, he’s surpassed almost anyone’s wildest, most optimistic expectations.
Branyan made a pretty solid case for himself as an American League All-Star, though he didn’t make the team, with his .280/.382/.573 line in the first half. Most surprising, is that he has ultimately received almost all of the at-bats at first base, even against lefties, and been fairly productive.
But things have begun to turn south for the talented lefty. Back spasms have slowed his legs, and while they may be partially responsible for slowing his bat, it is entirely possible that the slugger is making a slow decent back to earth.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a statistic often used to forecast a player going into the future, usually over a short period of time.
The statistic doesn’t include homeruns or strikeouts, but rather is used to quantify balls that the opposing defense can affect.
While player’s batting averages may fluctuate some .100 points during their career, typically, their BABIP is more steady.
When players are hitting significantly above their career average BABIP, they are considered to be having lucky seasons.
Branyan’s career BABIP is .306, and his 2009 BABIP is .337.
He’s struck out less often, hit home runs more often, and walked more often this year than his career averages would indicate.
That is reason enough to believe that the second half could bring Branyan back down to his career line, a far less impressive .236/.334/.496.
Add in a rough June and July, and the regression seems inevitable. If the aforementioned is the sole method for determining a regression, M’s fans better get the same booing lungs ready as Branyan takes the same meteoric nosedive as the last first baseman the Mariners signed from Milwaukee by way of Cleveland.
But before the hatches are battened down, there are a few other philosophies to consider when describing Branyan’s success.
Those who believe in positional comfortability on defense, or steady playing time as contributors to offensive consistency will say that his time at first base has led to his atypical mid-30’s surge.
Others who believe that batting order position has been a huge factor in Branyan’s success. Most of his recent struggles occurred beginning the same day he was moved into the No. 2 spot in the batting order.
But even by conventional thinking there is explanations for Branyan’s potential regression, led by the idea that he’s simply not that good.
He’s never produced like this for this period of time, and there have been several scouts and general managers who saw fit to trade Branyan, or allow him to leave via free agency, were they all wrong?
And truth be told, while not generally well received before allegations surface, these types of rags to riches stories have had the rags and riches replaced by needles and veins far too frequently in recent memory to create solid footing for even the most starry eyed optimist to stand on.
All that said, if the Mariners are open to dealing Branyan, there will be suitors. Branyan’s $1.4 million salary could make him the most valuable of all rent-a-players. The teams that I assume will be interested are the Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Marlins, Mets, Braves, and Giants, though many of those teams have caveats to acquiring Branyan.
The Red Sox would be interested in Branyan in light of the struggles of David Ortiz, but Ortiz bounced back pretty well to have a very good June (.320/.409/.653). However Big Papi is struggling in July, and the Red Sox may just be looking for insurance.
Branyan can play a respectable first base, an ugly but honest third base, and could probably play left field if called upon. Also, Theo Epstein will be well aware of Branyan’s potential regression and the Mariners would likely receive less compensation as a result.
The Rays would likely balk at the chance to receive a mid-30s non-compensation player for whom they’d have to give up a valuable young player.
The Tigers have mostly bullpen arms in their farm system, something the present front office regime may stay away from trading for.
The Marlins, like the Rays, are in no financial position to be taking on non-compensation players for valuable trade pieces; though they’ve proven to be aggressive in years they think they are contenders.
The Braves would probably be an ideal fit, with a straight-across trade for Casey Kotchman, or some sort of Branyan+ arrangement that would bring Kotchman to Seattle.
Kotchman’s probably never going to be a great offensive first baseman, and has limited value, but he’s one of two pieces the Braves got in the Mark Teixeira trade. Albeit unfair, he carries added burden for any team trying to trade for him.
The Mets have been weary of making trades, and expect Carlos Delgado to return in August. If Delgado suffers a setback in the next two weeks, the Mets may become serious contenders for Branyan’s services, but if not, Branyan and Delgado are essential clones, though Delgado is better.
The Giants only caveat is that their preference for a bat would that it is right handed. But at the price they’d likely be able to get Branyan for, and the financial price they’d pay him the rest of the year, beggars can’t be choosers.
So what exactly could the Mariners expect to receive for Branyan?
Branyan is an odd trade piece. He’s one team falling in love with his bat away from being dealt for way more than he’s worth, as has been the case in the past for flash-in-the-pan power hitters.
Jose Guillen was once traded for Aaron Harang and two throw-ins, all while hitting .337/.385/.629 in Cincinnati in 2003. He was traded after 349 plate appearances, a number he hadn’t accumulated since 1998.
Is there an Aaron Harang out there?
Branyan’s significantly older than Guillen was, but considering that Clay Bucholz and Michael Bowden, both Red Sox farm hands have both been critical of the organization during the season, perhaps they’ve lost enough favor with the team to warrant a trade.
Rick Porcello, the Tigers only true blue-chip prospect, won’t be wearing a Seattle uniform unless the name coming back in return is Felix Hernandez.
I’d guess the Mariners, if Branyan is traded, are likely to receive two mid-grade prospects or a solid, Major-League-ready prospect.
To make a trade like that they’d likely have to cross the frugal Rays and Marlins off the list. Also gone are the Red Sox, who place a heavy emphasis on statistical evaluation and will properly assess Branyan’s value.
With the remaining teams, the Mariners may look to receive:
Mets: Reese Havens, SS or Ruben Tejada, SS/Greg Veloz, 2b assuming the Mets are interested
Tigers: Jeff Larish, 1b or Alex Avila, C/Casper Wells, OF
Braves: Yunel Escobar, SS or Kala Kaaihue, 1b/Edgar Osuna, LHP. Braves valuation of Escobar seems to have changed dramatically since this offseason, another Yuniesky Betacourt?
Giants: Travis Ishikawa, 1b, the Giants have a bevy of power arms, I won’t begin to predict who the Mariners may pull from their pitching-heavy farm system.
Ultimately, the Mariners must decide if keeping Branyan, arguably their best hitter this season, is more valuable than trading him. He won’t garner compensation in the off-season, and they’ll have to either let him walk or overpay him.
They must decide if a potential run to the playoffs is worth losing out on building toward the future, as Branyan was once the equivalent to buying a foreclosed mansion, but have the Mariners made that house a home? Or are they looking to flip it for a large profit and move forward?
Zduriencik hasn’t been shy in making non-PR-friendly moves, Branyan may be his ultimate test.