The First Base Plot Thickens

Juan Miranda and Brandon Allen had been the main candidates for the job of Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman, with Xavier Nady, Geoff Blum, and Melvin Mora behind them with plenty of first base experience on their resumes. Now another name - Russell Branyan - has been thrown into the mix, despite general manager Kevin Towers' alleged aversion to strikeouts.

The Diamondbacks added another candidate -- and now possibly the favorite -- for the first base job when they signed free agent Russell Branyan to a minor league contract with a spring training invitation two days before the full squad reported.

Branyan, 36, will compete with Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda to become the starter, but there seems little reason to believe that the job will not belong to Branyan if he performs as he has the last two seasons, two of the most productive of his career.

Branyan had the best season of his 13-year major league career in Seattle in 2009, when despite playing in a pitchers' park he hit .251 with 31 home runs and 71 RBI, all career highs. He followed that by hitting 25 homers last season, splitting time between Cleveland and Seattle. He had 15 homers in 57 games after returning to the Mariners in a midseason deal, averaging a homer every 13.7 at-bats.

"He's a veteran guy, he's proven, he's obviously got talent,"  D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said of Branyan.  "He adds to the competition. He could make us better.  It doesn't rule anybody out. He knows that coming in. I'm glad to have him - excited to have him."

Allen flashed his potential last season in his second short stint in the big leagues, hitting .267 with one homer in 45 at-bats. He played as many games in left field as he did at first base, and he could provide an option behind Xavier Nady there. Gerardo Parra and Willie Bloomquist also are in the reserve outfield mix.

Miranda, who has spent small parts of the last three seasons as a first baseman/DH with the New York Yankees after emigrating from Cuba, is out of options and would have to clear waivers to remain with the D-backs if he did not make the major league team out of spring training.

Branyan can opt out of his deal rather than return to the minors if he does not make the major league roster.  He will earn $1 million if he makes the 25-man roster, and could replace some of the pop lost when Mark Reynolds was traded to Baltimore and Adam LaRoche left via agency after combining for 57 homers and 383 strikeouts last year. Branyan has 189 career homers, but has the same career strikeout rate as Reynolds; both go down on strikes once every 2.6 at-bats.


--2B Kelly Johnson and the team agreed to a one-year, $5.85 million contract for 2011 to avoid an arbitration hearing scheduled for the next day. "To me, there are no winners in going to a hearing in the arbitration process," general manager Kevin Towers said. "I've always felt sometimes it hurts relationships. I want the player to be focused, ready for the season, not having to worry about putting on a suit and sitting in a hearing room. I think it was good for both sides." The sides agreed to a figure slightly closer to the one Johnson was seeking, $6.5 million. The D-backs had submitted a $4.7 million figure, twice Johnson's 2010 salary. Johnson had a career-high 26 homers last season.

--RHP Micah Owings, in camp on a minor league contract, worked out at first base and took a turn in the batting cage the second day of spring training, part of the D-backs' plan to see if he could possibly fill a role as a right-handed hitter off the bench when not pitching. "To be used in different roles is a huge attraction to me," said Owings, who went 8-8 with a 4.30 as a rookie in 2007 and also won the NL Silver Slugger Award with four homers and a .333 batting average that year. "I'm open to the opportunities ahead. I'm not sure how it will work out, but I'm ready to see." The D-backs offered Owings a chance, at least initially, as a long reliever. "First and foremost I want him to have value as a pitcher. The other is a bonus," manager Kirk Gibson said.

--The D-backs have scheduled a spring training game against the Chicago White Sox in Tucson on March 7 with the proceeds going to a fund established in remembrance of Christina Taylor-Green, the 9-year-old who was one of six victims slain in the attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a Tucson rally January 8. "Our family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for our sweet Christina. This charitable fund will ensure her legacy for the children in our community," said John Green, Christina's father and a Dodgers scout. Christina was the granddaughter of former major league manager Dallas Green. The game will be played at the Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, where the D-backs and White Sox played their spring training games from 1998 through 2008. The White Sox have since moved to suburban Phoenix, and the D-backs moved out of Tucson this year for their new spring home in the Valley.

--LHP Clay Zavada, who underwent Tommy John surgery last May, reported to camp two days late because he had to take care of personal business, refuting reports that he was hesitant to report because of arm soreness. Zavada has not thrown off a mound and is expected to be slightly delayed out of camp.

DIAMOND STAT: 56 -- Home runs the last two seasons by Russell Branyan, now the favorite to win the D-backs' first base job after signing a minor league deal with a spring training invitation.

QUOTABLE: "I saw the type of guys that [Kevin Towers] goes after, the type of team he builds, and saw the moves he made here this winter and was very excited about it." -- Russell Branyan on the new-look Arizona Diamondbacks.

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