GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Russell Branyan had to think for a moment, when he was asked what day he began playing catch. "What's today?" Branyan asked. "The days are sort of all running together." But the days of spring camp are also numbered, and that makes Branyan's bum back situation all the more pressing for the Indians.
For the record, Branyan, who has a herniated disc in his lower back, re-initiated baseball activities by playing catch Sunday. He's also begun hitting in the indoor cages again and said he expects to know in "three or four days" if he'll be ready to get into Cactus League games. If he is ready for such activity, then the 34-year-old Branyan would have the one week he feels he needs to prepare for the looming regular season. "I know what my progression's been in the past," Branyan said. "I've never needed the whole spring to get ready. I think a week is definitely enough time." Of course, little has gone to plan in the month since Branyan signed with the Tribe. With the intention of making him their regular first baseman, the Indians gave Branyan a one-year deal that included a $2 million guarantee. Beyond the fact that Branyan was coming off a career year with the Mariners, the Indians saw the benefit of adding Branyan to a team that otherwise would have been an injury away from starting Andy Marte or Shelley Duncan at first base and was leery of continuing Michael Brantley's arbitration clock. Yet as the days of spring camp linger on and Branyan remains a no-show in Cactus League play, it appears increasingly possible he will open the season on the disabled list. If that happens, it could hasten Matt LaPorta's move from left field to first base and potentially open the door for Brantley to begin the season as the Tribe's regular left fielder.
It's become an interesting little subplot in the Indians' spring camp. "Everyone's out here getting ready for the season," Branyan said. "This year, for me, it's just taking a little bit longer." Give Branyan points for accuracy with that statement. When he arrived to the Player Development Complex for his physical exam on Feb. 23, Branyan was coming off what was described as a rigorous offseason training program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Though physicals aren't exactly a "pass or fail" situation, regardless of the way they are portrayed, the fact is the Indians were satisfied enough with the results of Branyan's exam to give him more than two-thirds of their big league free-agent expenditures. The only other player they signed to a guaranteed deal was backup catcher Mike Redmond for $850,000. Admittedly, then, the Branyan situation gets quite a bit more attention here than it would get with most clubs. But questions will linger about Branyan's back, which prevented him from playing last September, even if he's able to open the season with the Tribe. "It's not the first time I've ever faced adversity in this game," Branyan said. More points for accuracy there. Branyan's career trajectory has hardly been a standard one. After all, when the Indians last signed him, in August 2007, it was to their Triple-A Buffalo club, not the Major League team. Branyan fought his way back onto the Major League free-agent radar by hitting 31 homers and driving in 76 runs in 116 games with the Mariners last year. But until he actually steps foot on the field, it will be impossible to tell if he can duplicate that sort of production with the Indians. "I think I have a good shot of making [the Opening Day roster]," Branyan said. "It's just a matter of what they see when I start playing games and whether they like what they see."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.