I'll be honest with you - since the end of the season, I've considered the return of Russell Branyan in 2010 all but an inevitability. He's a player that fits here, filling a need and adding a lot to the lineup, and this being the first team to really give him a chance to play every day, it's felt like a situation with, for all intents and purposes, one possible outcome. Any thoughts I've had about how next year's Mariner team is going to fare have pretty much all included Branyan somewhere in the middle of the order.
Being that he's now a free agent who's received calls from a handful of other teams, though, we might as well take this opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of bringing Branyan back, because this is a decision around which a good chunk of the offseason will have to be built.
The biggest pro, and the main reason the team would like to have Branyan back, is the obvious one - he's a good hitter. Though he can take a walk and hit for a little more contact than he used to, Branyan's strength is his...strength...and it was that power that allowed him to conquer Safeco Field and match guys like Maggio Ordonez and Bobby Abreu in productivity. He was arguably the best bat on the team, he wasn't in any way exposed by the regular playing time, and this is a roster that's short on thump. Branyan would serve a major purpose.
Outside of his ability, Branyan would also likely be pretty cheap. I don't know what his demands are, but as a soon-to-be 34 year old who's never attracted a lot of attention from people that don't live in basements, Branyan could re-sign and still leave the team with a lot of financial flexibility to put towards improving the rotation or first base or third base or somewhere. If thewant 2010 to be a competitive season, they need to spend what money they have this winter wisely, and Branyan could help a lot for a reasonable sum.
Finally, Branyan's familiar. He was here last year, he's in tight with the front office, he gets along with his coaches and teammates...this is where Branyan wants to be, and though quantitation is a futile exercise, there has to be some small benefit to signing a guy you can count on to be happy, to be a positive influence. Roster turnover can be a very good thing, but it is not a very good thing on its own.
Those are the positives. Those are the reasons the front office is probably planning on having Branyan come back. You might have noticed that he has yet to sign a contract, though. And that's because, while Branyan's a fine player, he comes with some risks that would give pause to any GM. Branyan may want two years, but there's a reason Zduriencik has yet to give them.
Branyan is about to turn 34. He's about to turn 34, and though no one's particularly concerned that Ichiro just turned 36, Branyan is an "old" 34, in that he isn't known for his conditioning or athleticism. Branyan's posted eight triples and 13 stolen bases in 882 Major League games. He's had old player skills since the day he picked up a bat, and it's those sorts of guys - guys like Ben Grieve and Jeremy Giambi - who tend to age pretty quick. It's not like this is a new phenomenon in Seattle, and one needs only recall Richie Sexson at age 32 to know that Branyan's immediate future is hardly guaranteed. A player like Branyan could decline at any moment, and Branyan can't afford much of a decline if he wants to hang on to his career.
It would be one thing if Branyan were a "clean" 34, but last year he developed a bad back down the stretch that prematurely ended his season. The back thing is an issue for two reasons. For one, it probably has a negative effect on his performance. We saw Branyan struggle when he tried to play through the discomfort, batting just .184 in his final 190 ABs, and while a lot of that was driven by BABIP, it's not like it would be outlandish to suggest that back pain could hurt a guy's productivity at the plate. Branyan's herniated disc is a red flag. A return of the discomfort could really do a number on his performance.
And the second reason is that it limits Zduriencik's flexibility. A year ago, Branyan was brought in to play first base, and that's what he did, but now that the health of his back is a question, Zduriencik would have to account for that by bringing in someone capable of playing the field to fill the other hole and pushing Branyan to DH. You don't want to risk his health by forcing him to play a defensive position very much. The Mariners have openings at both 1B and DH, but if they re-sign Branyan, then that probably takes them out of the running for guys like Jim Thome, Hideki Matsui, and Vladimir Guerrero, because with Griffey's old ass already on the roster, you can't keep collecting guys that can't play the field. That's just a logistical nightmare. If the M's bring back Branyan, then they'll need the other addition to be capable of playing defense.
Russell Branyan is a fine player who can do some extraordinary things, and the Mariners need some guys with his kind of bat. That said, while Branyan's return still carries this air of seeming inevitability, he does come with some downsides, both visible and less so, the recognition of which has brought us to where we are today. We'll see where we go from here, but in the meantime, you can expect to hear the M's linked to just about as many options as possible, because this is not a decision they'll want to make without doing all of their homework.