The Indians signed first basemen Russell Branyan to a one year, $5 million dollar contract to add power to a team that was lacking in the area. They weren’t lacking a left handed bat, but that’s all that there was on the market. Branyan was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the seventh round in 1994. He came up in 1998, and was supposed to be the next big thing at third base for the Tribe. However, his propensity to strikeout and he was not the most defensively polished infielder, he moved on to other things. One thing that has kept him in the league is the fact that he can hit the long ball and is left handed.
That being said the Indians brought him back this winter to bring his long ball threat. What they didn’t want was his cranky back. However that could be the best thing for them. While Branyan hasn’t played in the Indians 17 spring training games yet, the Indians are not concerned. Whether they are concerned or not, they need to realize it’s a good thing.
One of the first decisions Many Acta made coming into spring training as the Indians new chief was to declare Branyan the starting first basemen. That in turn meant Matt LaPorta was slated to start in left field, forcing outfield prospect Michael Brantley to start the year in Columbus. That being said, the Indians a team admittedly that will not be relying on the long ball need a player like Brantley in the lineup.
The move to keep Brantley in AAA Columbus to start the season could be motivated by holding the clock on arbitration, a common move by many teams in recent years. However for a team like the Indians with many young players, though Acta claims they are not rebuilding, it is still good to have your best 25 players if you want to win. Branyan is not a better fit than Brantley. Acta, being a previous National League player and Manager, usually would use speed and on base percentage over the long ball as a tactic, but not in this case. Branyan would provide some veteran presence in the lineup, but would be more valuable as a backup. The Indians already have an aging left handed power bat with injury problems in Travis Hafner. However Brantley is the better fit for the team for a lot of reasons.
Teams that put emphasis on speed and scoring runs without waiting on the home run, have a lot of success and not just recently. Not only do more NL teams play such tactics, but they are proven to be quite effective. Consider the 2002 World Series Champion Los Angeles Angels. They scored 851 runs, but only one player hit 30 home runs. Two players hit 20, but they still were one of the top teams in the league in run differential. Over the last seven seasons the Angels have not stolen less than 139 bases, and have been to the playoffs five times. It’s no coincidence, and yes they have won on pitching as well. They have had players like Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Troy Glaus, and most recently Kendry Morales his 30 plus home runs, but the first two also has 15 or more stolen bases. They run the bases well, and more importantly get on base a lot, and can get from first to third on base hits. Take Chone Figgins. He has averaged just over 44 stolen bases a year since 2004 and has a .365 on base percentage as the Angels leadoff hitter since 2004.
The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays scored 774 runs and only one player his 30 home runs and only two his 20 or more. BJ Upton stole 44 bases, and two more stole 20 or more, as a team they stole 142. They lost the World Series to the Phillies, who stole 136 bases as a team. Even more importantly they only grounded into 108 double plays all regular season.
Now take the Cleveland Indians from 2008-2009. In 2008 Grady Sizemore stole 38 bases to lead the team. Franklin Gutierrez, now on the Seattle Mariners, was second, with nine. As a team they stole 77 and grounded into 123 double plays. In 2009 the Indians stoles 84 bases, Shin Soo Choo had 21 to lead the team, but they hit into 140 double plays. They also struck out 1,211 times as a team.
Now back to Michael Brantley, a player who would help in all the previously mentioned categories. In five minor league seasons Brantley has averaged 40 stolen bases per season, and in only one season in the minors did he ever strike out more than he walked (2007 AA Huntsville-Brewers, 55 SO, 29 BB). In his other seasons his strikeout to walk ratios are 2.4-1, 1.19-1, 1.60-1, 1.42-1, 1.22-1. In 2009, not one player drew more walks than strikeouts. Only one player walked as much as he struck out, Victor Martinez, who was traded to Boston in July, had 51 walks and 51 strikeouts.
In 112 at bats last season in Cleveland, Brantley hit .313, had an on base percentage of .358. A player like Brantley is important. Acta wants to move Sizemore to second in the lineup and put Asdrubal Cabrera as the leadoff hitter, and that is a fine idea. However if you’re hitting Brantley in the seven or eight hole as opposed to Branyan, when Cabrera and Sizemore are up, if Brantley is on second, he can score on a base hit, where as Branyan cannot. If Brantley is on first, he can make it from first to third on a base hit, or could even score from third on a groundball out. Bottom line the Indians need to manufacture runs. With a very questionable pitching staff from their number one starter to closer, they need to score runs. A player who spent the last month of the season on the DL and struck out 149 times last season in 116 games is hard to count on, especially if he has yet to even swing a bat in a spring training game.
Not only is Brantley an asset in the lineup and on the bases but also in the field. Without getting into crazy stats again, think of this. Matt LaPorta, who is basically Ryan Garko playing left field (not again!), but having Branyan at first with a bad back in a lot of early season cold weather certainly isn’t the makings of a good defense. Now Tribe fans think of this. With again, a shaky pitching staff in a slight hitters ballpark, you could have an outfield of Choo, Sizemore, and Brantley. The pitching staff probably feels a lot safer letting the hitters put the ball out there, knowing any one of them can run a ball down.
Brantley is the player the Indians need in the lineup. If the Indians are indeed not rebuilding, then why not take your best 25 players north, because you certainly don’t win ballgames leaving one of your better players in AAA. All Mark Shapiro needs to do is look at the Indians of 2005 to figure that out. Juan Gonzales was supposed to be in the outfield opening day but was hurt in spring training. That put Grady Sizemore in center field for the first time. Sizemore went on to play 639 games from 2005-08, earning three All Star appearances. He suffered a few injuries that limited him to 106 games in 2009. By the way, Gonzales grounded out in his only at bat in 2005, before hurting his hamstring again, he never played again. The Indians should make the right call on Brantley before Branyan’s back does it for them.