36 hours into Manny Acta’s first spring training as manager of the Indians, and he’s already nestled himself a nice, warm place in the back corner of Cleveland’s media doghouse.
That didn’t take long, did it?
On one of the youngest teams in the majors with question marks for most of the team, Acta has curiously already ended all speculation and named Russell Branyan the starting first basemen.
“He’ll get a majority of the time at first base,” said Acta. “We didn’t sign him to be a backup guy.”
Branyan was signed for two million (with an additional million in incentives), sort of like when you get a discount at a grocery store because your can of tomatoes is dented.
The Indians were able to sign Branyan so cheap for a reason—his breakout season of hitting .251 with 31 home runs (and 149 strikeouts) was cut short due to back problems. Cleveland and Tampa were the only teams to take a serious gander at the lefty power hitter.
However Cleveland and Tampa are currently operating under two entirely different situations.
Before that, Boston added John Lackey, assembling arguably the best rotation in baseball.
Russell Branyan would have fit in nicely in Tampa, hitting DH and adding some versatility to the Rays’ lineup as they try to play catch-up to the two evil empires with endless checkbooks.
The Indians, however, would probably consider a third place finish in the Central a success.
The Twins are as healthy as they have ever been, the White Sox will have Jake Peavy for the entire season, and while the Tigers may struggle to keep their heads above water, the recent signing of Johnny Damon will help their young but talented outfield.
Meanwhile, the Indians won 65 games in 2009. While that number will almost undoubtedly be surpassed, improving that number by at least 20 without a true ace or potentially a true No. 2 starter if Carmona falters, and with major question marks to everyone in the line-up not named Choo or Cabrera is a tall order.
So Cleveland executes a quick bargain signing of Branyan to spell Hafner at DH and start in place of LaPorta while he recovers?
That made little sense.
Declaring Branyan has won the starting job at first base about ten minutes after he passed his physical?
That makes none.
Especially when that pushes LaPorta to LF, and probably pushes Michael Brantley to AAA Columbus to start the season.
Brantly, 23, hit .313 with four stolen bases in 28 games (he stole an additional 46 in AAA last season), and is the heir-apparent to Sizemore in the lead-off spot.
And, considering the Indians (according to many sources including indiansprospectinsider.com’s Tony Lastoria), view prospect Jordan Brown as an outfielder in the big leagues, this all but barriers Brown behind LaPorta and Brantley.
Brown, 26, hit .336 with 51 extra base hits and an OPS of .913 in AAA last season, his second full season at that level. He hits the ball where it’s pitched, and is a genuine hitter—meaning, he has nothing left to prove in the minors.
The Indians were openly searching for a right handed bat and/or someone to possibly spell Hafner if he falters or needs rest.
Instead, they found the left-handed Branyan who, like Hafner, struggles against lefties but crushes right-handed pitching.
Why sign Branyan instead of calling up Brown, who can play 1B, LF, or DH?
Or if Acta wanted Brown to log a third season in AAA (for who knows why), why not allow Andy Marte to play first while LaPorta recovers, giving Marte his probable last shot to stick with Cleveland?
Acta commented that Brantley and LaPorta will play everyday. If Branyan is the everyday starter at first, the only two options to make that possible would be an injury, or Brantley being sent down to AAA.
Acta also said he welcomes the 30 homeruns Branyan can supply.
The Indians should be very weary that Branyan can duplicate his breakout season considering his back problems and that only two teams took fliers on him, and three even expressed interest (Boston dropped out of the race a couple of days before his signing with Cleveland).
Branyan, 149 strikeouts, will be hitting around Choo and Peralta, who combined for 285 K’s in 2009. Sizemore should add about 125 of his own.