Yanks sign Russell Branyan to minor league deal

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Yankees are looking for a left-handed DH on the cheap, and they may have found one today. Dan Martin reports that they’ve signed Russell Branyan to a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training, where he’ll get a chance to make the team. Joel Sherman says he’ll earn $750k plus incentives while on the active roster. Since it’s a non-guaranteed contract, the signing doesn’t necessarily preclude the Yankees from signing someone like Raul Ibanez or Johnny Damon.

Branyan, 36, spent last season with the Diamondbacks and Angels and was pretty awful. He posted a .300 wOBA with five homers in 146 plate appearances, his worst season in about eleven years. He is just a year removed from 25 homers and a .350 wOBA, however. Branyan does three things really, really well. He strikes out a ton (29.7 K% last three years), draws lots of walks (11.3 BB%), and hits for ungodly power (.248 ISO). He has eight homers in 14 career games at the New Yankee Stadium, including some of the longest blasts in the ballpark’s history (like this one off Javy Vazquez and this one off Al Aceves).

Over the last three seasons, Branyan has hit .250/.347/.507 against right-handed pitchers but only .208/.290/.435 against southpaws, so he’s strictly a platoon bat. Although he has some third base and left field experience under his belt, it’s been a while since he’s played anywhere other than first. Frankly, his best position is DH. Coincidentally, he was part of that 2008 Brewers team with CC Sabathia and the recently signed Bill Hall. If nothing else, Branyan should put on a show in Spring Training.

When Prospects Bust: Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens

Hensley Meulens, right, with Alvaro Espinoza (photo by Andrea Modica, andreamodica.com)

Among the many wonderful things about being a baseball fan are the bizarre attachments one tends to form — generally as a youngster — toward relatively obscure players who don’t end up doing anything noteworthy. Yet because you were seven years old and had their baseball card, they’re indelibly seared in your mind.

As a young Yankee fan whose earliest memories of the team begin around the 1988 season, I had to not only contend with scores of my Met-fan peers deriding me (it seems crazy now, but the Mets actually did at one time rule the baseball landscape in New York City), but also grow fond of an incredibly uninspiring and lackluster group of players. The franchise’s nadir (the 1990 squad is among the worst in team history, with the third-most losses of any Yankee team; and the 1989 through 1992 seasons represents arguably the worst consecutive four-year stretch in franchise history) coincided with my burgeoning obsession with the team.

Now, not everyone who played for the Yankees during the dark years was terrible. Like most Yankee fans my age, Don Mattingly was my favorite player growing up, and we were also treated to…um…hmm…well, at least we had Donnie Baseball. Rickey Henderson actually posted several incredible years for the Yanks (from 1985-1988 he was actually better than D. Baseball, with a .405 wOBA, 154 wRC+ and 28.4 fWAR across nearly 2,500 plate appearances), though given his non-homegrown-ness I don’t recall ever truly warming up to ol’ Rickey. Willie Randolph showed impressive plate discipline before walks were even in vogue, but no pop at all; while Dave Winfield, though offensively robust, seemed aloof and unrelatable. Outside of these stalwarts, the talent level of the Yankee offensive corps around this time ranged from reasonable (Jack Clark, Andy Stankiewicz, Jesse Barfield) to wholly unacceptable (Alvaro Espinoza, Pat Kelly, Randy Velarde, Bob Geren).

At some point within that 1989-1992 four-year period my dad took me to a Yankees-Mets exhibition game at Yankee Stadium. Back in the day the Yankees and Mets played an annual set of exhibition games under several different banners (among them “Big Apple Series,” “Mayor’s Trophy Game” and “Mayor’s Challenge”), and being that the Mets were the superior team at the time I remember thinking that these contests were a pretty big deal. Given how poor the Yankees’ plight was at the time, something as silly as bragging rights based on the outcome of a couple of exhibition games actually held some meaning. I have tried in vain to locate the actual date and boxscore of the game I attended, but as this was pre-internet there doesn’t seem to be anything definitive regarding the Yankees’ old spring training schedules out there. (Note: The Yankees and Mets are actually playing each other this spring on April 3rd and 4th, marking the first time the teams will have met in spring training since 1996).

The one thing I can tell you is that I distinctly remember being beyond excited to get to see Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens play in person. At the time I seem to recall Meulens — signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent in 1985 — was being hyped as the Yankees’ next big homegrown power bat, in case you couldn’t tell by the fact that his nickname was “Bam Bam.” Based on Meulens’ 1990 season, in which he obliterated AAA to the tune of a .285/.376/.510 line over 559 PAs and earned him a September call-up (not to mention the International League MVP) that saw him hit a slightly more modest-but-still-reasonable .241/.337/.434 (115 OPS+) in 95 PAs, I’m almost certain the Yankee-Met game I attended would have been held in the spring of 1991, on the heels of Meulens’ breakout year. Otherwise I have no idea how I’d have even been aware of him.

Anyway, the only thing I remember from the game is that Meulens did in fact hit a home run (I think the Yankees won, but again, we’re talking over 20 years ago), seemingly cementing his status — along with, of course, Kevin Maas, who also broke out in the latter half of 1990 — as the next big homegrown Yankee player.

Unfortunately for Meulens (and Yankee fans), his first full season in pinstripes was a disaster. After breaking camp with the team, Meulens stayed in the bigs the entire year, but his wretched .222/.276/.319 (65 OPS+) line across 313 PAs limited him to action in only 96 team games (in a move right out of the Joe Torre managing handbook, the right-handed Meulens’ struggles against right-handed pitching — which apparently dominated the American League in 1991 — opened the door for more playing time for veteran Mel Hall). Meulens was demoted to Columbus for the 1992 season and, despite hitting .275/.352/.481 in 603 AAA plate appearances, stayed in the minors the entire year save two late September games in the Bronx. I suppose the team was pleased with Charlie Hayes’ .257/.297/.409 line (97 OPS+) at the hot corner that season, although Meulens must have really fallen out of favor to have languished in AAA the entire year.

Meulens never recovered. In 1993 he again began the year at AAA, got called to the Bronx in late May, hit .170/.279/.340 over 61 PAs, and was demoted again two months later. Meulens finished the 1993 season at AAA Columbus, ultimately posting the weakest line of his min0r-league career. The Yankees released him in November of 1993, and he played in Japan from 1994-1996. Meulens headed back to the U.S. prior to the 1997 season, signing with the Braves, who released him during spring training, and then latching on with the Expos.

Meulens again spent most of the 1997 season at AAA, putting up a fine .274/.369/.501 line, and did the most he could with very limited playing time in another September call-up (.292/.379/.583 in 29 PAs), but was released at the end of the year. He spent most of the 1998 season with the Diamondbacks’ AAA squad before being traded to the White Sox at the 1998 trade deadline. However, for reasons I can’t sort out, he only played in two games for Chicago’s AAA affiliate after the trade, so presumably he was injured for the majority of the remainder of the season.

Hensley Meulens never stepped to the plate in the Major Leagues again after May 14, 1998, thus closing the book on the MLB career of a man whose power was supposed to have been legend but who ultimately only swatted 15 big league home runs. Per Wikipedia, Meulens subsequently spent time with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League in 1999; made one last stop in Asia, playing 14 games with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization and batting only .196; then headed to the Mexican League with the Saraperos de Saltillo in 2001; and finally retired, in 2002, after a mid-season injury while playing with the Pericos de Puebla. In the ensuing years Meulens has since carved out a successful career as a Minor and Major League coach, and currently serves as the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, with whom he won a ring in 2010.

Happily, Meulens seems to be at peace with his place as a hitter in a baseball history. Last July he was quoted in the aforelinked Wall Street Journal story:

Meulens, meanwhile, met a similar fate. A native of Curacao, he was nicknamed “Bam Bam” for the staggering power that produced—legend has it—500-foot home runs in varied minor-league towns. “That’s no exaggeration,” says Ralph Kraus, Meulens’s teammate at Class A Prince William in 1987. “I’d never seen anyone hit balls as far as he did.”

Yet for all his oomph, Meulens never adjusted to major-league pitching. In 288 at-bats in 1991, he hit six home runs while striking out 97 times. “It was my fault,” says Meulens, who now works—somewhat ironically—as the San Francisco Giants’ hitting coach. “I was a highly touted prospect who never figured it all out. That’s on me.” Like (Kevin) Maas, he was eventually released.

Not that you ever want to see anyone fail, but it’s refreshing to see Meulens own up to his struggles, and I’m glad he’s found his calling back in the big leagues.

Plan F: The Jimmy Key Story

(AP)

Getting spurned by big name free agents isn’t a familiar feeling for Yankees fans, which is why the Cliff Lee decision last winter was so disappointing. We’d grown accustomed to the Yankees just getting whoever they wanted, and that was a shock to the system. Being told no by Lee was nothing compared to what happened two decades ago, however.

The 1992-1993 offseason was highlighted by a pair of in-their-prime superstar free agents: 28-year-old reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds and 26-year-old reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. The Yankees wanted both, and started the winter by offering Bonds a five-year, $36M contract that would have made him the highest paid player in baseball. Then-GM Gene Michael made the offer the Monday before the winter meetings, but he gave Bonds and agent Dennis Gilbert just two days to accept. When they asked for a sixth guaranteed year, Michael broke off negotiations.

“We wanted him and now it’s off,” said Michael. “We’re going for pitching. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. We will not have Barry Bonds with a sixth year … We have to draw the line somewhere. I have no regrets saying we did not offer him a sixth year. We offered him a fantastic contract for five years. We really went out of our way to make a nice offer.”

The day after making the offer to Bonds, Michael met with Scott Boras about Maddux and presented a standing five-year, $34M contract offer. Maddux was their true number one target that offseason.

“If we are going to step out, we’re going to step out for this guy,” said Michael. “He’s the best pitcher available, and he knows our offer is serious … There is no scare in this kid.”

A few days later, Bonds got his guaranteed sixth year from the Giants and headed to San Francisco for $43.75M. Boras was seeking $7M annually for Maddux, saying “if you’re the Cy Young Award winner and the most durable pitcher in baseball, you deserve the premium salary.” The right-hander had thrown 260+ innings in each of the previous two seasons and 235+ innings in each of the previous five seasons.

Maddux visited the New York area with his wife in early-December, and Michael showed them around New Jersey. The Yankees had acquired Jim Abbott from the Angels for three young players — Russ Springer, J.T. Snow, and Jerry Nielsen — earlier in the week, a move that reportedly impressed Maddux and seemed to boost the Yankees chances of signing him. Ultimately, it did not. A few days later, Greg Maddux was a Brave, taking less money to go to Atlanta and remain in the National League.

“This one hurts,” said Michael. “He’s the best one out there. I never thought I could say this, but he’s a steal at [five years and $28M]. He’s a steal … It’s not over yet for us. We’ll do some things.”

The Yankees had multiple irons in the fire all winter, so Michael turned to Plans C, D, and E after being jilted by his top two free agent targets. He’d offered David Cone a three-year deal worth $17M earlier in the offseason, but the 29-year-old right-hander went home to the Royals for three years and $18M. Doug Drabek and Jose Guzman signed with the Astros and Cubs after being extended offered from the Yankees. Plans C through E were now off the table as well.

While Michael was busy dealing with Bonds, Maddux, Cone, et al., then-managing partner Joe Molloy was serving as the team’s chief negotiator with free agent lefty Jimmy Key. Key was 31 at the time and had a bit of an injury history, but like Cone he had been an All-Star and won a World Series with the Blue Jays the year before. His wife Cindy was his agent, and the two were on vacation when they accepted the Yankees’ four-year, $17M proposal a few days after Maddux headed to Atlanta.

“You can’t dwell on Bonds or Maddux or Cone,” said then-manager Buck Showalter. “I’m excited about getting a player of [Key’s] background and with his track record coming to New York … As important as that is, I’m excited that he wanted to come to play in New York.”

Since the signing was brokered by Molloy, questions about Michael’s job security arose. George Steinbrenner had been banned from the team’s day-to-day management two years earlier by commissioner Fay Vincent for the Dave Winfield fiasco, so Molloy was left to answer questions about who was running the team.

“[Michael is] an excellent general manager … As long as I’m the general partner, Gene should feel confident in his job as the general manager,” said Molloy. “That’s not to say if I get upset with Gene, I won’t fire him either.”

Key joined Abbott in the 1993 rotation, which also included holdovers Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki. He was the Yankees best pitcher in 1993 and 1994 (3.11 ERA in 404.2 IP), but he got hurt in 1995 and managed just five starts. Key returned in 1996 and wasn’t as effective as he had been in the past, but he did help the club to the World Series. He got the ball in the deciding Game Six of the Fall Classic, and outpitched Maddux to give the Yankees their first title in 18 years. Not bad for a guy that was Plan F.

Biz Hits: The Yanks stink; Madonna and soccer in the Bronx

A few non-baseball related items for your overnight enjoyment: The Yankees have announced that Madonna will perform in the stadium in the Bronx on Thursday, September 6. This is the rumored “big announcement” the club teased when they sent out the release on Roger Waters’ a few weeks ago. I had guessed, and hoped for, Bruce Springsteen, but music fans will just have to settle for Madonna instead. The pre-sale starts Monday at 10 a.m. right here. The top tickets — on-field seats right in front of the center field stage — will go for $359.50 each.

Madonna, though, isn’t the only person taking her talents to Yankee Stadium this summer. According to a report on Big Apple Soccer, the House that George Built could host a July or August soccer friendly between Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Based on the Euro Cup slate and the Yanks’ schedule, Big Apple Soccer believes the most likely dates for a game are July 25 or August 11 or 12, but the various parties are still hammering out the details. The last Yankee Stadium soccer match pitted the New York Cosmos against the Miami Toros way back on August 10, 1976.

Finally, the Yanks are proving what their haters already claim: that they stink. Few details exist about this news, but according to reports, the Yanks will be releasing two fragrances at a cocktail party on February 21. One will be called simply “New York Yankees” and the other “New York Yankees For Her.” If you’ve ever wanted to smell like Francisco Cervelli, now you can. Or something like that.

Open Thread: Donovan Osborne

(Photo via MainLineAutographs.com)

We’ve seen a lot of left-handed pitchers come through the Bronx over the last 15 years or so, but few of them had the pedigree of Donovan Osborne. He was the 13th overall pick back in 1990, twice rated a top 100 prospect by Baseball America (#42 in 1991 and #35 in 1992), and was the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter in 1999. Osborne made just six starts that year due to injury, and was out of baseball entirely until 2002. He appeared in eleven games for the Cubs in 2002, got hurt again, and missed all of 2003. The Yankees rolled the dice and signed him to a minor league contract on this date in 2004.

Unsurprisingly, Osborne was pretty terrible for the Yankees. He made the team out of Spring Training as a reliever, spending time as both a lefty specialist and mop-up man in April. Injuries and ineffectiveness forced him into the rotation in mid-May, which resulted in a pair of clunkers against the Mariners (6 R in 1.1 IP then 6 R in 5 IP). The Yankees had enough by then, releasing Osborne about a week later. In two starts and seven relief appearances with the team, he allowed 16 runs and 32 baserunners in 17.2 IP. He never pitched in the big leagues again.

Osborne was a forgettable Yankee, but I will always remember him for one thing: he wore #46. Remember, this was 2004, so Andy Pettitte had just fled for the Astros. The team reissued his number immediately, and that always struck me as disrespectful. Then again, George Steinbrenner always seemed to be trying to trade Pettitte through the late-90s and early-2000s, so I guess Andy was used to it by then.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action, plus the final game of the Caribbean Series is on ESPN3.com and ESPN Deportes. The Dominican Republic already clinched the series title, so tonight’s game is meaningless. Talk about that stuff or anything else you want here. Have at it.

Yankees sign Bill Hall to minor league deal

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Yankees have signed utility man Bill Hall according to utility man Bill Hall. We first heard rumblings that the two sides were talking last week. Erik Boland confirmed that it’s a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training. Ken Rosenthal says Hall will get a $600k base salary if he makes the team with another $50k each for 100, 150, 200 and 250 plate appearances plus another $100k each for 300, 350, 400, and 450 plate appearances. That’s a total of $600k in incentives. He can opt out of his contract if he’s not on the big league roster by April 4th, two days before the start of the season.

Hall, 32, is supposedly a close friend of CC Sabathia‘s from their time together on the Brewers. He was atrocious for the Astros and Giants last season, like .252 wOBA with a 31.7% strikeout rate in 199 plate appearances atrocious, but Hall did club 18 homers with a .342 wOBA in nearly 400 plate appearances for the Red Sox as recently as 2010. He does have some power (career .188 ISO) and is very versatile, having played over 200 career games at second, third, and short while also seeing considerable time in all three outfield spots. The defensive numbers are mixed, however.

The Yankees have been connected to Hall in each of the last three or four offseason it seems, so Brian Cashman finally got his guy. The signing doesn’t impact the team’s pursuit of a left-handed DH-type. Last night we heard that the Yankees were in serious talks with Raul Ibanez, and that a deal with a DH-type could be wrapped up this week. Don’t be surprised if the Yankees bring in another player or two to compete with Hall for a bench spot either.

David Wells and Immortality

The baseball gods were kind to David Wells. They blessed the burly left-hander with a rubber arm and the ability to roll out of bed and paint the black on both sides of the plate. He didn’t have blow-you-away type stuff, but he did carve out an extremely long and productive big league career by throwing strikes and eating innings. On a Sunday afternoon in 1998, it all came together.

(AP Photo/Lou Requena)

The Yankees were, without question, the best team in baseball in 1998. They won 27 of their first 36 games and were so good that they won eight of their number two starter’s first nine starts even though he had a 5.23 ERA. That number two starter was Wells, who then-manager Joe Torre used to call the “Fourth of July” because his personality was both unpredictable and explosive. The Yankees had split the first two games of a three-game series with the Twins on the weekend of May 15th, and Wells was scheduled to start the rubber game that Sunday.

It was Beanie Baby Day at Yankee Stadium, the plush stuffed animal toys that were near the end of their novelty lifespan. Wells spent the previous night at Saturday Night Live’s season-ending wrap party, he would later admit in his book Perfect, I’m Not. “This party is too much fun to even consider leaving at a reasonable hour,” he wrote, going on to explain how he plopped into bed at 5am and was woken up by his then-six-year-old son Brandon less than four hours later. Wells showed up to the park for the afternoon game hungover, downed some coffee and Tic Tacs, then went out to the bullpen for warm ups.

As he would go on to explain in his book, Wells felt terrible during his pregame routine, and not just from the hangover. He was bouncing curveballs and missing his spots in the bullpen, but then-pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre continued to sing his praises for a strong warm-up. Wells though he was nuts. The Twinkies had won four of their last five games but were without banged up leadoff man Todd Walker, who brought a .382/.420/.551 batting line into the series.

The first batter of the game nearly ended the whole thing before it all started. Matt Lawton swatted a 2-1 pitch to deep left field, but Chad Curtis corralled it for the first of 27 outs. Brent Gates popped out on an 0-2 pitch for the second out, and Paul Molitor grounded the first pitch to second for the third out of the inning. Stottlemyre greeted Wells with a “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout while opposing starter LaTroy Hawkins danced around a Derek Jeter single for a scoreless first inning.

The ball didn’t leave the infield in the second inning, as Marty Cordova grounded out back to Wells, Ron Coomer struck out, and Alex Ochoa popped out into foul territory behind the plate. Another 13 pitches, another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout. Bernie Williams created a run in the bottom half of the second, scoring on a wild pitch after he’d doubled to lead off the frame and gone to third on a passed ball. Wells struck out Jon Shave to open the third, but catcher Javier Valentin worked the count full and started fouling off pitches. The ninth pitch of the at-bat froze him for called strike three, and Boomer followed that up by whiffing Pat Meares to strike out the side. “Way to go, Boom-ER!”

Hawkins tossed a 1-2-3 inning, then Wells sat down Lawton, Gates, and Molitor on an infield pop-up, a strikeout, and a fly ball to left. Bernie added a second run on a solo homer in the bottom of the fourth while Wells needed just a dozen pitches in the top of the fifth; two strikeouts and a ground ball. Hawkins followed up with another perfect frame, as did Wells in the top of the sixth with another dozen pitches, another two strikeouts, and another fly ball. Another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” greeted him in the dugout.

The Yankees were up two-zip but Hawkins had settled into a groove, throwing another 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the sixth. He’d retired 12 of the last 13 men he faced, the one exception being Bernie’s homer. Wells had thrown 80 pitches in the first six innings, and he started to labor in the seventh. He fell behind in the count to Lawton 2-0 before the Twins’ leadoff hitter flew out to center. He ran the count full on Gates before getting a ground out to first, then fell behind in the count to Molitor 3-1 before running the count full and getting a strikeout. Stottlemyre greeted him with another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout, but Wells knew what was going on and he started to feel the butterflies. Plus he was still hungover.

Superstition is a serious thing during perfect games, hence the “Way to go, Boom-ER!” welcome after every inning. Wells sat alone at the end of the bench while his teammates were at the plate each inning, per tradition. ”Here the guy has a no-hitter going and he looks like he has no friends,” said television broadcaster Jim Kaat. The Yankees broke things open and scored a pair of runs thanks to a Darryl Strawberry triple and a Curtis single, all while Wells sat in the dugout with those butterflies in his stomach. His teammate and good friend David Cone then broke the cardinal rule of perfect games: He spoke to him.

”I think it’s time,” said Cone, ”to break out the knuckleball.” Wells burst out laughing.

The comic relief seemed to settle him down. The Twins didn’t hit the ball out of the infield in the eighth inning — ground ball, ground ball, infield popup — and the crowd greeted Wells with monstrous standing ovation to start the ninth. Shave fouled off three pitches as part of a seven-pitch at-bat before popping out to shallow right for the 25th out. Valentin struck out on four pitches for the 26th out, his third strikeout of the game. Meares was the final batter of the game, and Wells got ahead of him 0-1 after a foul ball.

(AP)

In his book, Boomer said his 120th and final pitch seemed to last a baseball lifetime. “The ball leaves my hand, heavy, and I swear to God, it takes forever to reach the plate,” he wrote. “I’m watching the pitch in slow motion.” Meares swings underneath the pitch and popped it up skyward, toward the right field foul line. Paul O’Neill runs over to make the catch — one-handed! — for the 27th and final out.

“David Wells has pitched a perfect game!” yelled John Sterling during the radio call. “Twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down! Baseball immortality for David Wells, and thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win!”

It was the 15th perfect game in baseball history, and only the second thrown in Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen, who threw the other Yankee Stadium perfect game during the 1956 World Series, called Wells after the game to congratulate him. Coincidentally — or maybe not — both men are graduates of Point Loma High School in San Diego.

”Yeah, it was tough. From the seventh on, it was ridiculous,” said Wells after the game. Given his rock star persona, it’s not surprising that he made the rounds after the game, appearing on Howard Stern, Regis & Kathie Lee, and David Letterman in the following days. Mayor Giuliani gave him the key to the city, and endorsement offers rolled in. ”He’ll think about it every day of his life, just like I do,” said Larsen.

Wells spent two stints and four years in pinstripes, helping the team to the World Series in that 1998 season. His career is probably underrated historically, but he gained baseball immortality during that Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. Wells is part of the game’s most exclusive club, one of only 18 men to throw a perfect game and one of only three to do so for the Yankees.