Marlon Byrd a good fit for Phillies but they still aren't ready to contend
Marlon Byrd has become the first significant player from 2013's class of free agents to find a new team this offseason, signing a two-year, $16 million contract to be the Phillies' new rightfielder. Byrd, who hit .291/.336/.511 with 24 home runs and 88 RBIs for the Mets and Pirates this past season, was originally drafted by Philadelphia in 1999 and returns to the team for his age-36 season to serve as a much-needed source of righthanded power, though there is ample reason to doubt his ability to repeat the career year he just had.
Byrd, a non-roster invitee to spring training by the Mets last year, set personal bests in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS+ (138) in 2013. That performance rejuvenated his career after a 2012 campaign in which he was traded in late April, released in early June and handed a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use that helped keep him off the field for the remainder of that season.
So what can the Phillies expect from Byrd over the next two seasons? Throw out both of the past two years, which represent his career extremes, and focus on what he did prior to being hit in the face by an Alfredo Aceves pitch in late May 2011, an incident with left Byrd with multiple facial fractures and cost him 39 games that season. From the start of the 2007 season through the hit-by-pitch, Byrd hit .295/.350/.453 for the Rangers and Cubs. Those were his age-29 to -33 seasons and took place in power-inflating ballparks (which Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park is as well). Byrd's isolated power in those seasons (slugging percentage minus batting average) was 158 compared to 220 last year. By any measure, then, his power output in 2013 was a fluke (indeed, after being traded to the Pirates, he posted an ISO of 168).
The solid batting average is legit (he's a career .280 hitter) and he drew just 29 unintentional walks this past season. So a 2014 line of, say, .285/.323/.445 (a .285 average plus 30 walks and a 160 ISO) seems realistic. That paints Byrd, who came up as a centerfielder and is still solid defensively, as roughly a league-average rightfielder (in 2013 the league-average player at that position hit .266/.329/.431). Is that worth $8 million a year considering the risk involved with Byrd given his age, past PED suspension and extreme performance fluctuations over the last two seasons? Actually, it is.
Furthermore, the righthanded Byrd is a particularly good fit for the Phillies given their lefty-heavy lineup. Five of Philadelphia's projected 2014 starters are lefthanded: Cody Asche, Domonic Brown, Ryan Howard, Ben Revere and Chase Utley, and switch-hitter Jimmy Rollins has had his struggles from the right side in recent seasons. Byrd is also at the same point in his career as Utley, Rollins and Howard, who will be 35, 35 and 34, respectively, next season, and his contract matches the duration of Utley's extension and Rollins' deal (the latter has a 2015 option that can vest if Rollins makes 434 plate appearances this season and does not finish the year on the disabled list). Because the Phillies plan to continue casting their lot with their homegrown trio, they could do worse than a cost-effective deal for a productive veteran player like Byrd.The signing of Byrd won't make Philadelphia a contender in 2014, but if that's the standard the team's moves are being held to this winter, they're all likely to disappoint.