Russell Branyan has a long, slow-developing swing. When the bat leaves his shoulder, you can go grab a hot dog, slather it in Bertman's Ball Park Mustard and be back at your seat in time to see what happens. Quite often Branyan misses the pitch, but if he catches hold of it, he can hit it a mile. Last year Indians TV broadcasts featured a clock that measured the hang time of Branyan's blasts, as if they were Ray Guy punts. In the minors he hit a homer every 12.7 at bats; he whiffed every 2.6. In the majors last year he had a league-worst 59 more strikeouts than hits. So he's a project. He's also the Indians' starting leftfielder.
That's significant, because for the past seven years Cleveland has not been the kind of team to give starting jobs to unproven players. The Tribe spent enough money to have a solid—often spectacular—player entrenched at every position by St. Patrick's Day. Not so under the ownership of Larry Dolan, who took possession of the team in February 2000. The days of the stringless purse are over.
Rightfielder Juan Gonzalez is gone, allowed to sign with the Rangers in the name of fiscal responsibility. Second baseman Roberto Alomar is gone, dealt to the Mets so that Cleveland could replenish itself. "There are fewer Mercedes in the parking lot this year," says reliever Paul Shuey. The Indians are so desperate for power (the 13 position players likely to be on the Opening Day roster hit a total of 153 home runs last year, and first baseman Jim Thome had 49 of those) that Branyan will play every day, regardless of the likelihood that a single-season strikeout record will be set.
Branyan got off to a good start last year, hitting 11 homers with 32 RBIs in April and May while playing regularly at third base for the injured Travis Fryman. When Fryman returned on June 2, Branyan moved to the outfield, but the hot bat of Marty Cordova cut into his playing time. ( Cordova signed with the Orioles in the off-season.) Branyan hit only nine homers and drove in 22 runs in his last 64 games of the season. "Can I do better?" he asks. "Yeah. I can cut my strikeouts, drive the ball better. But I can't focus on [strikeouts], because the more you focus on them, the more they're going to happen. They just go away with quality at bats. If they don't go away, I probably won't stick around too long."
Playing every day should help Branyan, because his long swing suffers if he isn't using it regularly. "He's definitely not a guy you want sitting on the bench, because of the timing in his swing," says manager Charlie Manuel. "Russell was the kind of guy in the minor leagues who put up big home run numbers, and when you see him hit the ball, you get real excited. We're trying to get a read on how good he can be. We think it's time to turn him loose and let him play."
New G.M. Mark Shapiro inherited some of baseball's most rabid fans, who have become accustomed to winning the AL Central (six of the last seven years), but this club is doomed to let them down. The Indians have a mediocre offense and slightly above average pitching. Payroll was reduced by about $10 million, to $82 million.
Should Cleveland somehow be in contention at the All-Star break, the question becomes whether Dolan will spend a little extra to make a push for the playoffs. "Every team has to make that decision," says Shuey. "Do you feel like you've got a really good shot at making it, and if so, is it worth that extra money to go out there and try to get it done? My feeling is Larry Dolan will give the thumbs-up if we're in the race."
Chances are it won't come to that.
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