Friday, February 19, 2010

Muscling into the Mix

The Indians finally made a “significant” foray into the FA market as they signed Russell Branyan to a one-year deal for $2M with another $1M in incentives and a $5M mutual option. He returns to the Indians after posting career highs in HR and RBI in 116 games with the Mariners last year, which he spent exclusively as a 1B. Branyan’s modus operandi is well-known and he’s a polarizing figure for nearly everyone who has watched him blast majestic HR and emulate a windmill in consecutive AB.

Everybody knows what the Indians are getting in Branyan, a guy who strikes out a lot, a guy who walks a lot, and a guy who hits the most awe-inspiring HR you’ve ever seen when he makes connection with the ball – all of this is known. Where the cloudiness starts to emerge is when you start to examine what Branyan’s role projects to be with the 2010 Tribe as the initial talk this off-season was that the Indians were looking for a veteran bat that would play the role of a reserve/bench player to complement the young lineup by being able to move around the diamond and outfield.

Despite this being the Indians’ stated desire, Branyan allegedly chose the Indians over the based on the idea that he was going to get more playing time with the Tribe. Seeing as how Tampa had a tailor-made role for him, as the LH complement to Pat Burrell as a DH, it makes me wonder how often Branyan is going to find himself in the lineup for the Indians…or at least how his role was presented to him in any negotiations that led him to believe that he’d see more playing time in Cleveland than he would in Tampa. If you believe what Ken Rosenthal reports, Branyan was sold on Cleveland with the idea that the Indians intend on getting Branyan “everyday at-bats at multiple corner positions” while “the Rays had less playing time to offer. They would have used Branyan mostly as a DH, and also in right field.”

“Everyday at-bats at multiple corner positions” causes a bit of a problem though, as it can be questioned as to whether Branyan can legitimately be considered a corner OF or even a 3B anymore at this point in his career, particularly in light of his back issues that caused him to miss the final month of the 2009 season. Just looking at Branyan’s recent usage in the field, he’s played 100 games at 3B over the course of the last four seasons in and has played LF in 34 games since the 2003 season, yet the idea is that he’s being considered as an option for 3B and the corner OF positions in 2010 for the Tribe?

Perhaps the Indians envision using him in a 4-corners role (1B/3B/LF/RF) as well as using him as a DH and maybe he’s just taking Marte’s “spot” (if that ever even existed) on the roster, but a closer look starts to reveal how the Indians figure to use Branyan and how the dominoes would fall around him.

While the Indians may be selling that 4-corners role idea, I’m just not buying Branyan at 3B (where the Indians have every reason to play Peralta everyday, if for no other reason than to attempt to increase his trade value) or in the outfield, where he has never excelled and has only played in 13 games over the last three seasons.

What does that leave him with, outside of a sporadic start (maybe) at 3B or in LF?
Ultimately, we’re talking about Branyan as a 1B and as a DH…or at least DH insurance.

Follow the line of thinking that Branyan is being brought on with the very real possibility that he’s the Indians’ 1B (at least to start the season), a notion backed up by Buster Olney:
The Indians were expected to try Matt LaPorta at first base, but there is concern that he may need more time to be groomed at the position.
Branyan presumably will have a shot at being the Indians’ regular first baseman, and be part of what is expected to be a good offense.

If you’re following this, that would mean that LaPorta would be platooning with Branyan (please Lord, no) at 1B, or would head off to LF, which doesn’t seem to be his long-term position given the presence of Brantley, for ½ of a season or a season before returning to 1B or would begin the 2010 season in AAA as a 1B because “there is concern that he may need more time to be groomed for the position”. Maybe the concern is there that LaPorta’s injuries will prevent him from starting the season healthy and effective, but he’s been cleared for full workouts after hip and toe surgeries recently and, if a concern exists about LaPorta’s health, wouldn’t 1B be a position that would cause less strain on any injuries, the same way it would Branyan’s back?

If Branyan is the sudden 1B (and sometime DH perhaps), mainly because that seems to be his only logical fit on the roster, particularly given the idea that the Indians sold him on “everyday AB”, it would certainly seem to represent a death knell for the idea that Mike Brantley’s going to be handed the starting LF job out of Spring Training. Of course, there’s no smoking gun to point to that Brantley is unquestionably ready for the lineup, much less the top of the lineup, as his AAA numbers last year were still underwhelming (.711 OPS) and while he made a nice impression on the Indians in his cup of coffee with the parent club last year, more time in AAA may benefit him.

It’s possible that the Indians are looking at Branyan as a first-half 1B (and occasional DH) with the idea that they’ll start the season with Branyan at 1B, LaPorta in LF, and Brantley in Columbus, but the issue that I have with that is the idea that LaPorta (who “may need more time to be groomed” as a 1B) is suddenly being bounced around the diamond to accommodate Russ Branyan. If nothing else, the Indians should be determining which position LaPorta eventually projects to and allow him to develop at that position, instead of allowing the presence of a guy like Branyan to be a major factor in the LaPorta’s 2010 position in the alignment.

If Branyan is that first-half 1B (while providing insurance that Hafner’s shoulder still isn’t right), maybe the idea is to play him everyday in MLB, start Brantley in AAA with the idea that he needs to “force” his way onto the team instead of being handed the LF job. The end game may be play Branyan for that first half to see if Brantley is indeed ready for MLB and, if so, the Indians could flip Branyan (assuming he’s playing well), moving LaPorta back to 1B and with Brantley ascending back to LF. The idea that Brantley needs to “earn” that spot is not the troubling one, rather it’s the notion once again that LaPorta (who is now 25-years-old) could still be bouncing around the diamond, attempting to master two positions during a season in which he’ll be trying to establish himself as the middle-of-the-order hitter he was purported to be when the Indians acquired him.

How this all shakes out and who’s still standing when the music stops in this game won’t be answered until Spring Training fleshes these questions out and innings and at-bats start being divvied up. Brantley could suddenly be the odd man out to start the season and LaPorta could be bouncing around the diamond as he attempts to find a toehold in MLB, all to add Russell Branyan to the mix. The upside with Branyan is there, but so is the confusion regarding how his presence on the team affects players that do figure into the Indians’ plans past July of 2010. All told, Branyan arrives in Cleveland as a LH hitter in a LH-laden lineup as a likely 1B (and insurance for DH) on a team that is looking for some level of stability at the position. Whether his presence helps to stabilize the lineup or throws it into a greater state of flux is another question in a season that figures to be full of them.


milwaukeeTribe said...

I think the Branyan signing is a very bad move. Just let LaPorta grow on the fly. Another strikeout champ only undermines the potential for a speed, on-base, and contact-oriented offense, driven by Brantley & Cabrera.

Total digression here, but I am thoroughly depressed, having just read Hoynes' piece (and more precisely, the user comments) this morning:

Not because he predicts they will finish last in the central, or reasons with the same old tired logic.

It's because, as I was marveling at how utterly pessimistic he is, I made the mistake of trudging through the article's comments from actual Cleveland sports fans.

A bevy of comments accusing Hoynes (of all people) of OVERSTATING the Indians chances, claiming he's influenced by the front office, to increase ticket sales, or fearing some sort of backlash from the FO, etc...

That combination of the article and its comments, both of which being totally devoid of any logic, push me closer to the edge in terms of admitting a sentiment that's been growing inside me for quite a while now:

Cleveland sports fans are, in general, very, very dumb.

GeronimoSon said...

Was there any doubt that one or all of the three stooges (Hoynes, Ocker & Ingrahm) would present Indians fans with their projection that the Indians would finish in DEAD LAST?

There is one comment about Hoynes following the PECOTA ratings.. ie. where Hoynes ignores them to allow the Indians to project to a last place finish (thereby setting up a "provacation" /need for a response) But, think about it, the difference between 75 & 76 wins is still 10 or 11 more wins than the Indians had in 2009...oops.. perhaps he missed that..

The ratings for the offensive output of the Indians (runs scored in 2009 compared to the league) appeared to have vanished like a fart in the wind, but was prominently displayed for other teams in the division.. I guess if there is a good area of the team like scoring runs, it's best left unsaid & unknown..

This is the normal line of drivel Hoynes puts out.. every article & every chance he gets.. Does it inflame diehard Indians fans?. some.. the one guy who said he's going to 10-15 games a year.. more if they're better.. is a normal "good" fan.. (my personal situation is just the opposite as I share four season tix.. the better the Indians play.. the less games I get to go to! :( )

The only valid source to determine if the Indians are "pocketing" all the profits while offering sub standard product comes from the Indians, themselves.. while the public is NOT permitted to have a peek at the books, the Dolans are on record stating that the bottom line for 2009 was $ 16 MM in red ink..and has NOT been refuted with any other valid source.. by ANYONE at ANYTIME.

Cleveland sports fans are not, in general, very very dumb.. the vocal minority (that post on these sights) are just easily led.. The force (PAUL HOYNES & Sheldon Ocker & Jim Ingrahm combined) is very effective on the weak minded...

GeronimoSon said...

Sorry for the sidetrack regarding Hoynes' projection.. now onto the content of this posting..

The addition or Russell the Muscle is split into two prominent areas: Offensively, "Paul" Branyan brings his heavy left handed axe..err...bat to the lineup. ME LIKEY!! Defensively, a healthy Branyan can & should be able to play any one of four spots: LF/3B/1B/DH. This versatility can be both a blessing and a curse. The concern posed in this posting about LaPorta being given a single spot to focus on while attempting to break into MLB is real. Branyan doesn't have that as an issue. Just write his name in the lineup card and he'll get the right mitt and go to that spot.

In MLB, there are essentially five RHP's for each 3 LHP's (both starters and relievers). Having a LH heavy lineup up should create real problems for Indians opponents:

vs RHSP's: The Indians can trot out a lineup of Grady CF, Droobs SS, Branyan 1B, Valbuena 2B, Choo RF, Brantley LF, and PRONK DH. That's seven lefties with sweet swinging Lou Marson C & Jhonny P 3B rounding out the order!

vs LHSP's: The Indians can go with Sweet Swingin Lou C, Matt Laporta 1B, Brian Bungler/Ja-DO 2B, Droobs SS, Jhonny P 3B, Crowe LF, and Austin Kearns DH with Grady & Choo rounding out the order. That's seven righties to face a LHSP!

While this projection over uses or over states the Lefty/Righty convention that most people believe, it gives new manager Manny Acta plenty of options to set the lineup in a way that gives the Indians their best chance to succeed. Afterall.. that's really the job of the manager.. putting players in a position where they have the best chance to win..

Adam A said...

Obviously I'm not near the SABRmetrics superstar that some of the rest of the commenters are on this blog, but my instincts after I first caught wind of this was "well, doesn't this seem like the Ryan Garko remix"?

Well, maybe put Garko's stance in a mirror to flip it around and put about 45 degrees to the trajectory of the ball after it swung, but still. After the last few seasons, I just am never impressed with the Indians' use of the platoon system. Often times, most platooners here amount to much less than I assume they'll be. I don't even need to mention the hybridized names.

I tend to agree most with the DH insurance theory. No one knows what Hafner's season will be, and Branyan is the closest representation to a backup 4-spot guy we've approximated in awhile.

I'm also optimistic that Manny will keep his Act-a (boooooo) together and will find a way to keep this ship righted.

Paul Cousineau said...

I'm with you in the disbelief on Hoynes (and your confusion on the signing). I was going to go after the Hoynes piece in tomorrow's LS...but it's just tiring and tired to continue to go after this stuff.

After reading the piece today in my paper (shaking my head at the justification that the Indians are the worst because they didn't sign as many FA as the rest of the division), for some unknown reason, I waded into the comments. Perhaps G-Son is right in that it's just the vocal minority, but anyone who thinks that Hoynes is the mouthpiece of the organization is beyond dumb.

Never mind the "use" of PECOTA in the "preview", then the complete avoidance of the manner of how PECOTA comes up with the projected records. That is, Hoynes says that the Twins and White Sox pitching staffs are on par with each other, but PECOTA projects the Indians to allow less runs than the Twins.

Garko dreams of putting up the numbers that Russ does, particularly in the power department...but you're right that defensively, I see Branyan basically taking the Garko role as 1B and part-time DH. It's the effect on LaPorta and his future that I don't understand.

Spills said...

I honestly just see as LaPorta/Hafner/Brantley insurance. If anyone of these three can't make it out of spring training, voila, Brayan's "everyday AB" appear.

Met my first poster this week while watching the Denver game. Guy was still bitching, loudly, about drafting Eyenga, and not picking up Jamison until so late into the season... I tried to argue with him for about 2 min before finally giving up and enjoying a good game.

CLohse said...

Brantley's trade bait mid-season. He's not dissimilar to the way the Tribe has picked up pitchers on the cheap (Millwood, Pavano, et. al.) and hoped that they'd perform more worthily than their contract would lead you to believe they might. As such, expect Branyan to get everyday ABs and for LaPorta to be given time to recover and develop in slightly less pressure-packed situation.

Paul Cousineau said...

I don't know Spills, I see him as a little more than insurance, given that he chose the Indians because he was promised more playing time than the Rays were willing to give. Maybe LaPorta's injury is more serious than we think, but I still think Brantley's starting the season in AAA.

I think you're right...assuming you meant that "Branyan" is trade bait and not "Brantley".

Lou Boudreau said...

You do have to wonder just how healthy Hafner really is. He seems to be healthy, but perhaps the reality is that a good year is 400 at bats.

What I don't understand is how it does appear that LaPorta may share at bats, and be bounced around the lineup as a 25-year old "cornerstone" to the CC trade. It's beyond frustration.

Perhaps there is something yet to happen...doubt it...but you never know....

Spills said...

Should have been more specific on my definition of insurance. I think he was brought in for the event that either Brantley, LaPorta, or Hafner crap the bed coming out of spring training.

If I'm in Branyan's shoes, I like my chances of getting significant playing time while being slotted behind two guys without much of a MLB track record, and a guy swinging the bat with one arm.

Again, will be an interesting first test case to see how Acta handles what could be a difficult situation.

Supervisor4 said...

I say, trade Brantley teams like the reds, mets or A's could use him.