March 23, 2012
The Meaning of Russell Branyan
A couple weeks ago, Mariners catcher Jesus Montero was on second base with two outs when a teammate singled. The third base coach held Mariners catcher Jesus Montero at third, and the radio announcers seemed shocked that the third base coach wasn’t more aggressive with two outs. This is what it means to be a radio announcer during spring training. Of course the Mariners aren’t going to send Mariners catcher Jesus Montero into a home plate collision during the first week of spring training games. Nothing that happens on the scoreboard matters. But it’s hard to follow baseball without caring, and so we end up caring.
And now that Google has accepted that this is a super sexy story about Mariners catcher Jesus Montero, let’s talk about Russell Branyan. Branyan signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees this winter. He got an invitation to spring training. The invitation was printed on very nice card stock, the Yankees being all class, but then Branyan forgot it on his refrigerator door and now he has to beg the guy at the door to let him in. The guy at the door is not budging:
“Infielder Russell Branyan and catcher Austin Romine, who are both suffering from back inflammation, continue to have no timetable for getting into Grapefruit League games. Branyan is still technically considered day-to-day.”
At this point, it’s extremely hard to imagine Branyan making the team. After signing Branyan, the Yankees added Raul Ibanez to DH and re-signed Eric Chavez to back up the corners. The team’s depth chart lists five designated hitters, and none of them is Branyan. (One of them is Derek Jeter, which is precious.) This is, quite possibly, the end of Russell Branyan’s career. Unlike Jesus Montero scoring from third base, this is a spring training story I actually care about. I suspect a lot of you do, too, because Russell Branyan might very well be the official mascot of the Baseball Prospectus era. I used to list Russell Branyan on my Friendster profile, under “Who You’d Like To Meet.” In the silly Us vs. Them paradigm that made 2002-2006 so much fun, Branyan was the perfect player for Us. He was always unwanted, his skills were underappreciated, he was stupid strong, and he most likely played for each of our favorite teams at some point.
The Yankees are Branyan’s 17th stop. That’s two more stops than Matt Stairs made, and one more than Terry Mulholland made. This is sort of staggering when you consider that Branyan is only 35; Stairs was famously nomadic (I once asked an agent whether he’d ever had a player tell him to just sign with whomever offered the most money, no matter where it was. His response: “Yeah, Matt Stairs.”) and played until he was 43 years old, and still Branyan already has him beat. Fifteen of Branyan’s stops have come just in the past eight years. To understand Branyan’s career, and to insert a framing device into this piece, we really have to go through those 17 stops.
1. Cleveland Indians: June 1994 to June 2002.
Russ Branyan gets compared to Dave Kingman for his strikeouts, and like Kong he also has the gift for making himself unloved. Upon his last promotion from Buffalo, a local reporter wrote about how great the move was for the Bisons. Branyan fought with Kenny Lofton in July and has irritated all of his minor-league managers.
Every Russell Branyan signing brings hope to a new fanbase, or at least to the nerds like me in the new fanbase. But this was perhaps the last time that Russell Branyan’s departure was accompanied by much sorrow, because Branyan was seen as something of an organizational failure. "I think this was harder on me than it was on Russell," said Shapiro.
2. Cincinnati Reds: June 2002 to December 2003.
"That's all I heard (in Cleveland)—he's either (strikeout) or (homer)," Branyan said after his first game in Cincinnati. "They brought it up every single day. That's a reason why I feel this is a new opportunity for me, a clean slate. I have a chance to prove myself and hopefully the people here aren't too biased and predetermined to judge me for what I can do."
He tried to shed that label in Cincinnati, and through six weeks or so he was striking out in just about 25 percent of his at-bats and hitting .305/.400/.610. Manager Bob Boone: "His history was big power, big strikeouts. We haven't seen that here. He's been swinging pretty good and has a nice approach to the ball."
But in a year and a half with the Reds, the strikeouts stabilized, and he ended up whiffing in 33 percent of his plate appearances. His career average is 32 percent. He was granted free agency in 2003, while still in his arbitration years.
3. Atlanta Braves: February 2004 to April 2004.
4. Cleveland Indians: April 2004 to July 2004.
5. Milwaukee Brewers: July 2004 to January 2006.
Branyan, who played for the Reds, hit a leadoff homer after a leather-lunged fan screamed out, "Russell, you're overrated!"
"It was loud, wasn't it?" Branyan asked. "I didn't even know I was rated. How can I be overrated? I couldn't get a job this off-season. Now I'm overrated."
He hit .247/.355/.506, with 23 home runs in 424 plate appearances, for Milwaukee. That was over two seasons, because he couldn’t stay healthy. The Brewers signed him to a non-guaranteed contract, then released him instead after acquiring Corey Koskie.
6. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: January 2006 to August 2006.
7. San Diego Padres: August 2006 to July 2007.
“At baseball's winter meetings in 1999, Towers dangled starting pitchers Sterling Hitchcock or Andy Ashby in front of the Indians. No deal. Last year, the Padres were willing to part with catcher Wiki Gonzalez and infielder Damian Jackson to acquire Branyan. Strike two.
“This spring, the Padres reportedly floated the name of pitching prospect Dennis Tankersley in front of the Indians—who again refused to bite. Then, on June 7, the Indians traded Branyan to the Reds for minor league outfielder Ben Broussard.”
Branyan’s car was stolen during spring training as a Padre.
8. Cleveland Indians: August 2007 to August 2007.
9. Philadelphia Phillies: August 2007 to August 2007.
10. St. Louis Cardinals: August 2007 to October 2007.
C. Yadier Molina
He played with both Chris Youngs, both Alomars, both Fielders, a Sean, a Shawn, a Chone, and a Shawon.
11. Milwaukee Brewers: February 2008 to November 2008.
"I was confused," he said. "I had a tough year last year, but I was in the big leagues the majority of the year. I really didn't know what to make of it. I even called teams personally. I couldn't even get a minor-league deal with a big-league invite (to spring training)."
It was late January when Melvin called Branyan's agent, Dan Lozano. Branyan had played for the Brewers from 2004-'05, so club officials knew him. They also knew Branyan lived in Nashville, where a veteran corner infielder was needed.
Branyan hit .250/.342/.583 in 152 plate appearances. David Laurila interviewed Branyan for us in 2010.
DL: Have you ever looked back at the seasons where you had 200 plate appearances and wondered, “What if…?”
RB: I don’t really look at that way. I look at it as, if this era would have ended sooner, or if I would have come into the league later, would I have had a better career? Because I think my career took awhile to get jump-started. These last couple of years I’ve been given an opportunity to play every day and I’ve been able to put up some numbers. Earlier, when I was in my 20s, it was tough finding jobs. It was tough getting the at-bats.
12. Seattle Mariners: December 2008 to November 2009.
13. Cleveland Indians: February 2010 to June 2010.
14. Seattle Mariners: June 2010 to November 2010.
15. Arizona Diamondbacks: February 2011 to May 2011.
16. Los Angeles Angels: May 2011 to October 2011.
The reporters went downstairs to talk to the newest Angel, who would, naturally, be the centerpiece of all the notes columns in the next day’s papers. We waited and waited—I want to say close to an hour—until the clubhouse was virtually empty. Finally, Branyan emerged, wearing either a towel or a suit, this being my awful memory we’re relying on here. He answered questions for perhaps two minutes, then motioned to the door and said the bus was leaving and he had to leave. It was probably the most veteran move I ever saw in a clubhouse, and the most Russell Branyan answer possible, the subtext of which was basically: You think my arrival is a story. You are going to write my arrival as though it’s a story. My arrival is not a story. I’ll be gone soon. And he was.
Love that guy.
17. And now the Yankees.