Welcome to the Cleveland Indians Trading Post, a weekly segment meant to help my fellow Tribe fans sort out which of the few familiar faces left on the team won’t be around much longer.
This week’s potential trade bait is Russell Branyan.
Ranked the 26th-best prospect in baseball before the 1998 season, Branyan bounced between the Indians and the Triple-A Buffalo Bison until 2000, when he became a semi-regular part of Cleveland’s lineup. He was revered as a source of tremendous untapped power, but his all-or-nothing mentality (39 percent career strikeout rate) made him a poor contact hitter (.234 career average).
In 2009, Branyan went to the Mariners (his ninth organization in seven years), and finally got a taste of regular playing time. He excelled, mashing 31 homers with an .867 OPS in 116 games.
Branyan signed a one-year, two million-dollar contact with the Indians before Spring Training, with a five million-dollar mutual option for 2010. This is his fourth separate stint with the Indians organization.
Why he has value
Branyan might not hit the ball with great frequency, but when he does, it goes a long, long way. His moonshots are so massive that even fans of the opposing team often applaud in awe.
He started off slowly as he struggled with injuries and a good old-fashioned slump. On May 10, he was hitting .200 with just two RBI and a .586 OPS. A man whose entire game revolves around the long ball had yet to hit a home run.
But on May 11, Branyan hit two homers in what seems to have been the turning point of his season.
In 86 at-bats since, Branyan has smacked seven long balls—on par with Albert Pujols and Ryan Zimmerman over the same time period—and driven in 13 with a .535 slugging percentage.
Don’t try and call this an unsustainable hot streak, because his numbers in the last 30 days are right in line with what he did last year. Assuming the injuries are behind him (at least for now—Branyan always seems to have something wrong with him), it is the slump that will end up looking fluky.
He’s not your prototypical middle-of-the-order guy, but what team wouldn’t love to have a slugger like him?
Why he’s expendable
The Indians aren’t contending in 2010, so having him around this year doesn’t do the team any good. However, this situation is more complicated than Austin Kearns’ or Jake Westbrook’s because of his option for 2011. And unlike Jhonny Peralta , there’s a legitimate case to be made for the Tribe keeping him around past this season.
No one’s expecting a pennant run in Cleveland next year, but the Indians certainly have the potential to contend in 2011. By the end of next season, the Tribe’s lineup will likely be boosted by prospects like Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Nick Weglarz, while the rotation could feature the likes of Yohan Pino, Hector Rondon, and Carlos Carrasco. Throw in a healthy Grady Sizemore and another year of seasoning for the Indians’ young current regulars, and you’ve got the makings of at least a respectable team.
If Branyan keeps up this pace, picking his option would be a no-brainer for Cleveland. But remember that it’s a mutual option. If he finishes with 35 homers, he’d probably be able to claim more than five million dollars on the open market.
Plus, if the Indians hold onto him past the Trade Deadline because they plan to pick up his option and he ends up going down with one of his trademark injuries, we’ll have missed a potentially lucrative opportunity.
Where he’d go
A half-season of a power-happy slugger who will make only about a million dollars over that time—what contending team wouldn’t be interested? The most interested teams, though, would probably be those that are looking to replace their injured or struggling first basemen.
The Colorado Rockies certainly fit the bill. For the first time in 14 big-league seasons, franchise icon Todd Helton is looking like a below-average hitter. His .240 batting average and .309 slugging percentage are by far the worst of his storied career. The man who once reached 49 homers and 146 RBI is currently on pace for just three dingers and 31 men knocked in.
The Rockies are sitting in fourth place in the ultra-competitive NL West. Just keeping pace with the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants will be a challenge, let alone making up the lost ground. If they want to return to the playoffs, they can’t keep looking the other way with Helton.
Finally, Branyan may be courted by the New York Yankees. The Bombers are looking up at the Rays and have the resilient Red Sox breathing down their necks, and first baseman Mark Teixeira is having the worst season of his career. How long can they wait before pulling the plug on the slumping $180 million man?
What do you think? Will Branyan be traded? Where will he go, and who will we get in return?
More Trading Posts
May 13: Austin Kearns
May 20: Jake Westbrook
May 27: Mitch Talbot
June 3: Jhonny Peralta