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Observations From Cooperstown: Russell the Muscle and A.J. the Ex-Yankee

Posted By Bruce Markusen On February 13, 2012 @ 4:56 pm In 1: Featured,2010s,21st Century,Baseball,Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Observations From Cooperstown,Yankees | Comments Disabled

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The Yankees might actually have a good bench in 2012, something we haven’t been able to say very often over the past decade. With returnees Andruw Jones, Chris Dickerson and Eduardo Nunez and free agent acquisitions Bill Hall and Russell “The Muscle” Branyan all in the mix (and Eric Chavez possibly on the way), the Yankees have a chance to cobble together a decent corps of backup players.

Put me down in favor of the Yankees’ signing of Branyan to a minor league contract. Although he’s 36 and coming off a bad season split between Arizona and Los Angeles (the Angels, not the Dodgers), he has enormous power, the kind of power that makes teams pull out the tape measure when he makes contact. I’ve seen Branyan hit some absolutely monstrous home runs, particularly to center and right-center field. He’s one of the strongest players I’ve ever seen, right up there with Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell in his ability to hit for sheer length. Of course, he hasn’t hit nearly as many home runs as those two Hall of Famers, so that’s where the comparison has to stop.

Branyan also draws a decent number of walks and has a history of success at Yankee Stadium. (He’s the only player to hit a home run against the glass facing of the center field batter’s eye at the new Stadium, having accomplished that feat in 2009.) The key to Branyan’s situation with the Yankees is this: can he still play third base? If he can, then he gives the Yankees someone who can spell Alex Rodriguez against the occasional right-hander, while also providing backup at first base and at DH.

A check of Branyan’s record at Baseball Reference shows that he appeared in two games at third base for the Angels last season. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to the 2008 season for any prior experience at the hot corner; he made 35 appearances at third for the Brewers that season. So it remains somewhat questionable whether Branyan can log any serious time at third base at this late stage of his career.

If Branyan cannot play third, then his value would lie mostly in his ability to DH against right-handed pitching. As a DH, he would need to revert to his 2010 level in order to be helpful. That summer, he slugged 25 home runs and slugged .487 for the Indians and Mariners.

So there are plenty of questions regarding Branyan. But on a minor league contract, with a relatively small salary coming to him if he makes it to Opening Day, Branyan is worth a look. Besides, how can you not love a guy nicknamed Russell the Muscle?..

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How do I feel about the possibility of trading A.J. Burnett? Where do I sign? Or perhaps I should say, “Great trade, who’d we get?” Even if the Yankees acquire little of value in exchange for Burnett, they figure to save $3 to $4 million in 2012 salary and can then use that money to add a left-handed DH or another piece to the growing bench. And if Brian Cashman is able to pry a meaningful player out of Pittsburgh in the deal, that’s all the better.

Media reports indicate that three or four teams are interested in Burnett, including the Pirates. The Yankees asked for Garrett Jones in a Burnett deal, but were quickly rebuffed by the Bucs. Jones is a left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder with power, so he’d be a fit for the role as a platoon DH role and backup outfielder. On the downside, he’s already turned 30, is not a nimble defender, and has seen his OPS fall from .938 to .753 over the past three seasons. Therefore, a player like Jones should not be a dealbreaker. Perhaps the Yankees can throw in another player, or perhaps they can find another match on the Pirates’ roster. How about a left-handed reliever like Tony Watson, who could then compete with Boone Logan and Hideki Okajima for the southpaw bullpen role? Or perhaps a minor league outfielder like Gorkys Hernandez?

The fact that the Yankees are engaging teams in serious discussions for Burnett indicates that the enigmatic right-hander has little future in the Bronx. Even if he’s not traded, he has no guarantee of returning to the rotation. He’ll have to beat out both Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes for the fifth spot, which is no small task. If Burnett is not traded and has a bad spring, the Yankees still have the option to stick him in the bullpen and use him as a long man. The bottom line is this: Burnett has no birthright to the starting rotation, not after the way he’s pitched the last two seasons.

So start the clock on Burnett’s departure from New York. I’d put it better than 70/30 that he’s an ex-Yankee by the end of the month. Heck, it might happen before the Yankees open camp on Sunday. I’d imagine quite a few readers of Bronx Banter would be pleased by that possibility…

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Now that Luis Ayala has signed with Baltimore, there may be an opening in the bullpen for another right-handed reliever. It could be filled by Manny Delcarmen, who is one of the more interesting names among the 27 non-roster players that the Yankees have invited to spring training. First, the bad news. Delcarmen didn’t pitch at all in the major leagues last season, and he struggled badly in Triple-A ball for two different organizations. Now the better news. He’s only 29, is durable, has had decent success against the American League East in his career, and has plenty of postseason experience.

In 2007 and 2008, Delcarmen was highly effective as a Red Sox set-up reliever, striking out nearly a batter per inning with a WHIP near 1.00. He has struggled badly since then, resulting in a demotion to the minor leagues last spring. In many ways, he reminds me of Ayala–at one time an effective reliever who has fallen on hard times. He’s just the kind of reclamation project that pitching coach Larry Rothschild specializes in, so it’s worth the relatively small gamble of a minor league contract.

When he’s right, Delcarmen throws in the mid-90s and has an excellent curve ball, which he uses as his out-pitch. Remember, Joba Chamberlain won’t be ready by Opening Day, Burnett could be traded, and Cory Wade, while effective in 2011, seems like a candidate for regression in 2012. So Delcarmen has a chance to make the team as the 12th pitcher–and that might not actually be a bad thing.

[Featured image photo credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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