Ten years ago, Russell Branyan was one of the top prospects in all of professional baseball.
Blessed with prodigious power from the left-hand side, Branyan was a Bunyanesque slugger with annual 40-homer potential who was destined to become a fixture in the middle of some lucky team’s batting order for years to come.
He made his major league debut on September 26, 1998. Only 22 years of age at the time, Branyan went 0-4 with two strikeouts in his brief taste of the big leagues. Over the course of the next two seasons, Branyan would strike out 95 more times while playing in only 78 major league games.
A second-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2004, Jason Vargas was a versatile left-handed pitcher who had risen to prominence during his senior collegiate season at Long Beach State University. A promising talent with respectable pitching numbers (7-6 win-loss record, 4.14. ERA), Vargas spent his off days moonlighting as the 49ers designated hitter, where he hit .354 with five home runs.
Vargas had found his way to Long Beach after stops at Louisiana State University and Cypress Junior College in California. Having already faced long odds on his way to professional baseball, Vargas would encounter further bumps in the road while attempting to sustain a big league career.
Playing behind a reliable veteran in Travis Fryman, opportunities were limited for Branyan in Cleveland. The rookie would appear in just 11 games in 1999, and only 67 in 2000.
He finally got an expanded opportunity in 2001, playing in 113 games across four positions: third base, left field, right field, and designated hitter. Unfortunately, Branyan could only muster a .232 batting average in spite of the 20 longballs he would turn into souvenirs. Already, the 25-year-old former prospect was being typecast as an “all or nothing” hitter; it was home run or bust for a guy like Branyan.
Halfway through 2002, the Indians gave up on their once-prized possession. They sent him to Cincinnati where he would begin an odyssey around baseball to rival that of the game’s greatest journeymen. By 2009, when he would reach Seattle, Branyan was playing for his eighth big league team. After Cleveland and Cincinnati, Branyan would endure veritable layovers in Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.
A man without a home, only the Mariners saw the remaining fragments of prospect status that had defined Branyan a decade prior. With the foresight of an oracle, Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik inked Branyan to a one-year deal to become the team’s starting first baseman.
Jason Vargas made his major league debut on July 14, 2005, barely one year after he had been plucked out of the collegiate ranks in baseball’s June amateur draft.
Vargas had quickly risen through three levels of minor league ball in the season’s first three months, culiminating in a brief stop at Double-A Carolina. Three starts with the Carolina Mudcats was all the Marlins needed to convince them that Vargas was ready for the big show. They eagerly promoted the southpaw to the majors, and promptly ushered him out to the pitcher’s mound.
His debut came in relief, but just four days later Vargas was the starting pitcher in a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He would pitch his first complete game just one month later, and concluded the ’05 season with stats that hinted at his potential: a 5-5 record, 4.03 ERA, 59/31 K/BB ratio, and a 1.39 WHIP in 73 2/3 IP.
At the start of the 2006 season, Vargas was seemingly entrenched in the Marlins’ rotation. Immediately, however, he got off to a rocky start. In five games, Vargas posted an ERA of 5.40, while walking more batters (21) than he struck out (14).
The team sent Vargas to Triple-A where he continued to struggle. Unbeknownst to many at the time, he would never pitch for the Florida Marlins again.
In the ’06-’07 offseason, Florida shipped Vargas off to the New York Mets in a four-player exchange of minor leaguers. Though he was with a new franchise, Vargas experienced similar results on the mound and wound up appearing in only two games with the Mets in 2007.
By 2009, those two games with the Mets were the last two big league games Vargas had appeared in. A bone spur in his throwing elbow sidelined the pitcher in 2008, and an ’08-’09 offseason trade sent Vargas packing once again, destined for Seattle.
A throw-in as part of the three-team deal that sent closer J.J. Putz to the Mets and returned outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, among others, to the Mariners, not even an oracle could have predicted where Vargas would find himself nearly halfway through the 2009 campaign.
He started the season at Triple-A Tacoma but found himself pitching in Safeco Field by May, thanks in large part to a slew of injuries that had ravaged the Mariners’ pitching staff. Not unlike that very first appearance he logged in relief back in July of 2004, Vargas got his start with the M’s as a long man in the bullpen. After a season-long implosion by starter Carlos Silva became too much for the team to handle, Vargas was promoted to the starting rotation.
Four starts into his Mariners career, the one-time prospect is 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 17/9 K/BB ratio, in 27 1/3 IP. Barring a major setback, Vargas — who has battled distant odds, injury, and infrequent opportunities — will likely remain in the team’s rotation for the remainder of the season.
A career .237 hitter entering the season, Russell Branyan is currently batting .323, with a 1.027 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), 11 home runs, and 23 RBI while appearing in 44 of Seattle’s first 51 games, all as the team’s starting first baseman. He has been a fixture in the five-slot in the batting order, and is quickly rising to hero status among Mariners fans, all in spite of his 47 strikeouts that frankly don’t mean that much anymore.
Most importantly, he is shedding the dreaded journeyman label, and has all but thwarted the “all or nothing” tag that followed him around on his previous seven stops around the major leagues.
These days, he is worthy of an All-Star selection and on the verge of a multi-year contract that would pay him more money than he ever fathomed he would earn in this game that can quickly destroy hopes and shatter dreams.
Ten years after a world of expectations were heaped onto his more-than-capable shoulders, Russell Branyan is finally making good on his ability to live up to the hype. They predicted he would hit for average, hit for power, hit home runs, and carry a baseball team. They predicted he would become one of the better players in Major League Baseball. They just didn’t know that it would take a decade for all those lofty prognostications to come true.