As Jason Collette pointed out yesterday, the Rays have seemingly lost all of their former first basemen to the American League Central. All three also happened to be 2011 Triple-A Durham first basemen.
The Durham Bulls played a couple of guys at first base in 2011 that have since moved on from the Rays organization. Dan Johnson signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox. Russ Canzler was traded to the Cleveland Indians for cash considerations. Casey Kotchman turned his magical 2011 season into a guaranteed $3M with the Cleveland Indians.
This leaves the Rays with Leslie Anderson as their lone first baseman in Durham. Why is this a problem, you ask? Because the Rays have no depth in case Luke Scott or Carlos Pena succumb to injury. Anderson is good organizational depth but there is little-to-no evidence that he would be able to handle Major League pitching if he were next on the depth chart to replace Pena or Scott.
The Rays still have plenty of arms to deal but it likely will not be for a Major League ready first baseman. Besides, with Pena and Scott on the active roster there really is not a lot of room to carry another guy relegated to first base duties alone.
If a trade occurs it will likely be for a player who can handle a few positions or, like Mr. Maniac pointed out yesterday, for an upgrade at catcher.
It may not seem like a big deal but imagine if the Rays did not have Casey Kotchman in Durham last year when Dan Johnson failed at the Big League level. Would the Rays have made the playoffs? What if it were Leslie Anderson who got the call? The Rays need to add a first baseman to Durham and who better than Russell Branyan?
Sure, you could argue that Derrek Lee would be a better option, but is he going to sign a minor league deal? I highly doubt it. He will likely find a Major League job somewhere.
Branyan did have a bad 2011 and had his fewest plate appearances since the 1999 season. Most of his plate appearances were in a pinch hitting role and getting the occasional spot start. He never got a fair opportunity to play and his numbers suffered. I have stated this before, and probably sound like a broken record by now, but the fact still remains that there is value here as long as he is healthy.
Branyan's defense at first base is actually really good. He has a +5.8 UZR in 1609.2 innings over the past three seasons. He has also maintained his good patience at the plate with his 10th straight year of posting at least a 10% walk rate. It was 12.3% last year and sits at 11.9% for his career.
Yes, his power was down and he only hit 5 homeruns last year but he has hit 68 home runs over his previous 939 at-bats. I believe the power is still there and the Rays honestly have nothing to lose if he is willing to take a minor league deal.
I know, I have what might be an unhealthy attachment to Branyan but the fact of the matter is that the Rays need some organizational depth at first base that can step in if Carlos Pena or Luke Scott were to go down with an injury. Why not Russell Branyan?