Marlon Byrd is back with the team that gave him his start in pro baseball. At one time Byrd was considered a top prospect in the Phils organization, being ranked as high as 26th by Baseball America before the 2002 season. After spending time in Philly, Washington, Texas, Chicago, Boston, the Mets and Pittsburgh, Byrd has come full circle to where it all began. Today Ruben Amaro Jr. signed the 36 year-old Byrd to a 2-year, $16,000,000 deal to be the Phils right fielder in 2014.
The Phils have been looking for a right-handed power bat to play right field since they sent Hunter Pence to San Francisco in 2012. In 2013 the Phils had nine different players take their turn at winning the right field job. None of them was impressive enough to convince Amaro the position wasn’t in need of upgrading. The Phils tried Bernadina, Brown, Carrera, Martinez, Mayberry, Nix, Ruf, Wells and Young there. All of them either had offensive or defensive shortcomings. Some had both.
Ruben Amaro identified a power hitting right fielder as one of his priorities as the winter meetings approached. In what was a strange statement that could only devalue Darin Ruf, he specifically identified him as not being up to the task of playing right field every day. Ruf’s future with the organization is unclear, but today Amaro has his man.
Byrd is coming off an excellent season spent mostly with the NY Mets, while finishing up the season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His season totals included a .291 BA, 24 HR’s, 88 RBI’s, 64 XBH’s a .511 slugging% and an .847 OPS. The flip side of the coin included 144 SO’s against only 31 BB’s. His defense is more than adequate and will be an upgrade over the vast majority of the players listed above. Byrd acquitted himself quite well in the playoffs too. In his first ever post season Byrd batted .364 with two doubles, a HR and five RBI’s in six games with the Pirates.
Is Byrd the answer to the right field revolving door and is the 2 year, $16,000,000 contract a bargain, an overpay or priced roughly where Byrd should be? It’s a complex question with many facets to the answers. Though Byrd did have an excellent season in 2013, probably the best season of his career, there is the failed PED test from 2012 in which he only played 47 games. His .210 BA, 1 HR and 9 RBI’s that year allowed the Mets to sign him to a $700,000 minor league contract for the 2013 season. In 119 games in 2011 Byrd hit .276 with only 9 HR’s and 35 RBI’s. Which Marlon Byrd shows up next year will help determine the answers to the questions above.
Last year is only the 2nd time Byrd hit 20 or more HR’s in a season. His high water mark discounting last year and 2009 (when he hit 20 for Texas – 14 of them in the hitter friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington) is 12. Is Byrd a really late bloomer? It’s possible. In 2009 the Phils signed then 37-year old Raul Ibanez to a three-year contract to take Pat Burrell’s spot in left field. Ibanez responded with 34 HR’s and 93 RBI’s as the Phils returned to the World Series for their first ever back-to-back World Series appearances. However Ibanez had a consistent seven straight seasons prior to signing with the Phils. Byrd has been more up and down than Ibanez, so it remains to be seen if he’ll continue to hit like he did in 2013 or if he’ll revert to the player he was prior to last year.
Signing Byrd is a gamble, but Amaro needs a few winning bets to pay off if the Phils are going to contend this year. I don’t think he’ll be allowed to spend over the luxury tax, as that is obviously a hard line in the sand for team President and CEO David Montgomery. Being somewhat hamstrung by the big contracts Amaro handed out in recent years means he probably won’t or can’t bid on the top free agents this year. There’s too many holes to fill with the amount of money he has to work with to hand out a massive contract this year.
The lack of help from the farm system is another reason the Phils are in the predicament they are. When Amaro refused to match the offer Washington gave to Jason Werth he correctly pointed out that you can’t have a $15,000,000 player at every position. That’s where an infusion of young, cost controlled talent comes in. The Phils have had very little of that the past few years and there isn’t any help on the horizon for 2014, with the possible exception of Maikel Franco.
Another aspect to consider in the Byrd signing is it makes an old team even older. Assuming the Phils resign Ruiz, five of their every day players will be in their mid-30’s or older. When do the Phils start getting younger? I know Amaro wants to compete this year and refuses to acknowledge the need to rebuild, instead comparing the Phillies to where Boston was a little over a year ago. The situations aren’t analogous. Boston found one team that was willing to take on many of their bloated contracts, giving them the opportunity to rebuild quickly. While the Phils could trade Lee or Hamels for young talent, other big contract players like Howard, Rollins and Papelbon aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
If Byrd hits like he did last year he’ll be the ideal 5-hole hitter behind Howard while improving the Phils outfield defense. Citizens Bank Park is a far more power hitter friendly park than Citi Field is in New York (where Byrd averaged a HR every 20.2 AB’s). If 2013 was a career year for Byrd, unlikely to be matched or even come close to in the next two years, this is a losing bet for Amaro. If Byrd can hold onto his .280 lifetime batting average while providing a serious power threat behind Howard, he will have more than earned his money in Philadelphia.