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The Branyan Deal and the Value of Present Wins

On Saturday, the Seattle Mariners acquired Russell Branyan in order to shore up their poor situation at first base. Branyan will replace Josh Wilson and Mike Sweeney, who played there the last three days as the Mariners took on the Milwaukee Brewers in interleague play. Given that the Mariners are currently 31-44 and 15 games out, the playoffs are a virtual impossibility – they just don’t have the talent to catch the Rangers.

The Mariners gave up Ezequiel Carrera and Juan Diaz. Carrera has a meager .318 SLG in AAA this season but has speed to burn and could become a fourth outfielder, possibily in the Joey Gathright mold. Diaz wasn’t among the Mariners’ top prospects entering the season. His .298/.349/.440 line may sound slightly impressive, especially at SS, but we have to remember that High Desert is among the easiest parks to hit in across all of professional baseball.

Basically, Carrera and Diaz don’t look to be valuable players in the Major Leagues, and the best case scenario for both appears to be as bench players in low contribution roles. Jack Zduriencik clearly didn’t view them as an important part of either the future or the present of the Seattle Mariners. There is also no question that Branyan is a major upgrade at first base. Branyan is projected for a .348 wOBA by ZiPS for the rest of the season and has a wOBA above .360 since 2007. Although he has a reputation as a poor fielder, much of that is based on his time spent at 3B. Over a short time at 1B, he has graded out as slightly above average, which is what would be expected out of a below average third baseman who doesn’t quite qualify as a butcher.

So far, the Mariners first basemen are at a collective .260 wOBA, 16 runs below average over 300 plate appearances. If Branyan picks up 300 plate appearances, he projects as a roughly average player (+4 bat, +2 glove, -6 position). Given that Mariners 1B have performed roughly 18 runs below average this season (-16 bat, +4 field, -6 position), the gain for the team could be around two wins.

The win gain we’re talking about here could be from 70 to 72, 76 to 78, or 65 to 67, depending on how pessimistic you are about this Mariners team. It raises the question: what are the value of extra wins to teams at the low end of the win curve? Do these movements in the 60 or 70 win marks matter at all for a franchise, especially to the point where talent, even marginal talent like Carrera and Diaz, should be dealt?

Jack Zduriencik surely believes so. As he told Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times,

But part of that development process is also winning games. We want our players to be able to experience winning games this year. And we’re trying to do what we can to give them what they need to get there.

This development, of course, is conveniently difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. There is also the more quantifiable benefit to present wins of revenue. I certainly believe there is a causal relationship between wins and revenue. Along those lines, Buster Olney suggests that local TV ratings may be a motivating factor for the deal.

The theory behind the Branyan trade – acquiring wins in a down season at a low cost in order to further development and, more importantly, increase revenues – appears solid. What it really depends on is if the Mariners’ evaluation of the prospects involved is correct. If, as the Mariners seem to think, Carrera and Diaz are nothing more than organizational depth, the trade is absolutely the right move, as the wins this season very well could increase potential payroll in seasons to come, and typically, that will mean more wins as well. If it turns out that one of these two prospects is a legitimate Major League talent, then trading that future value for a gain in this lost season is the incorrect move.

From what I’ve been able to figure out about these two prospects, their Major League potential is slim at best. Similarly, their ability to bring in future value in the form of prospects was also slim. Therefore, the present value that Branyan brings, potentially around two wins, is more than enough to justify this trade. It’s not the typical trade for a team in a selling position, and the idea of giving up any sort of prospect for wins in such a lost season will likely rub some people the wrong way. Valuing current wins for bad teams isn’t an exact science – at least, not that I know of – but I certainly believe that the value that Branyan gives to the Mariners is likely to outweigh the value that Carrera and Diaz would, even in their six years of team control, due to their poor prospect status. As such, I consider this trade a victory for the Mariners.