The Tampa Bay Rays (26-22) continue to share first place with the New York Yankees (25-21). This is nothing short of miraculous. One key problem has been the offense: The Rays are 3-7 over their last 10 games and have a below-league-average .639 OPS in that span. For the season, the team has been at best an average offense (per OPS and wRC+).
Fortunately for the Rays, the Arizona Diamondbacks may have dropped a big break on their laps. Last Saturday, the Diamondbacks released slugging veteran Russell Branyan, who was having a miserable season over his first 69 plate appearances (PAs).
Despite his 2011 statistics, Branyan has shown legitimate power in the past and very recently. For his career, the Georgia native has hit 190 homers, which prorates to 30 homers per 162 games. In 2009 with Seattle, he hit 31 homers and sported an impressive .251/.347/.520 slash despite the Mariner's pitcher-friendly park. In 2011, while splitting time between the Cleveland Indians and the Mariners, Branyan clubbed 25 homers and hit .237/.323/.487.
More than just a possible power bat, Branyan could very likely be a cheap power bat. He signed with Arizona for $1M, and because of the nature of his release, he will still receive those paychecks. This means Branyan would likely sign for the league minimum -- putting him well within the Rays budget constraints.
For Branyan, a return to Florida (where he played with the Devil Rays in 2006) should offer a considerable improvement over his tenure in Arizona: The Diamondbacks are presently stuck at .500 despite a recent hot surge, and while there, Branyan was a part of a three-way platoon at first base -- hardly getting enough playing time to find a rhythm.
In Tampa, Branyan would only need to compete with Casey Kotchman, who, granted, is having a good season so far, but has not and does not hit for power. If the Rays brought in Branyan, it seems likely he would get the lion's share of PAs while Kotchman becomes more of a late inning defensive replacement or pinch hitter.
Branyan does have a considerable injury history and could likely find his way to the DL more than once in 2011, but at the league minimum, the team can afford to take that risk.
If the Rays want to make something of this season, their chances are dwindling. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox have more total talent on their teams, so the Rays cannot hope to ride waves of great fortune into October. They will need to upgrade where they can. The ZiPs Projection System forecasts Casey Kotchman will hit .276/.341/.412 (.750ish OPS) through the remainder of the season, while Branyan will hit .252/.336/.518 (.850ish OPS) here-on-out. The decision for the Rays should be simple: