Byrd denies Phillies are old: 'We can still play'

Byrd denies Phillies are old: 'We can still play'

Byrd: 'There are days when I feel very old'

January 26, 2014, 8:00 am

Marlon Byrd hit .344 against lefties last season, second-best in baseball. (USA Today Images)

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On the Phils also bringing back Bobby Abreu: "So excited, one of my favorite players of all time. One of the smoothest cats in baseball. Bobby was one of the guys that took me under his wing when I was scuffling, him and Ricky Ledee.

"His knowledge, everything he knows about hitting, career .396 on-base [percentage], guy knows how to play. Him being here can only help."

(Impressive that Byrd knows Abreu's career OBP by heart.)

On Ricky Ledee's tweets with Marlon Anderson: "I saw that, bring Ricky back, why not? Bring em all back. Pat [Burrell], Todd Pratt, where's [Mike] Lieberthal? Bring 'em back." (See The700Level)

(Don't worry... he wasn't serious.)

In a way, Marlon Byrd never really left the Phillies.

There were eight years and six teams in between the Phils' trade of Byrd to Washington in 2005 and their reunion with the 36-year-old this offseason, but Philly was always home. And not in a cliche, they-were-the-first-ones-to-give-me-a-chance way, either.

"I've always looked at this organization," Byrd said Thursday in the Phillies' clubhouse. "It was easy to follow when I got traded. I moved back here.

"I was so excited when they made the playoffs, were making their run [in 2008]. I came to games, I was waving my towel like a fan. Absolutely loved it, talked to guys after games, talked about guys tipping [pitches], seeing what I see."

Tipping pitches?

"I remember when Tampa came to town, texting back and forth to Jimmy Rollins, 'Hey, [Matt] Garza's tipping his pitches, when he brings his glove straight up it's a fastball, when he tilts it back it's a slider,'" Byrd recalled. "Kinda feel like I was a scout."

It worked. Rollins singled in each of his first two at-bats against Garza and lined out in his third. The Phillies won that pivotal Game 3 en route to their first World Championship in 28 years.

Byrd is genuinely excited to be back. He says he's a much different player and person than he was in the early 2000s, and even though his physical skill set isn't what it once was, his journey has made him a better player.

Phillies fans were skeptical when Byrd was signed so early in the offseason to a two-year, $16 million deal. They cited his weak 2012 season and, of course, his age.

The first part of that criticism was strange. Why would more stock be placed on Byrd's 2012 than on his 2013? He returned from a 50-game PED suspension (more on that Monday) and was better than ever.

Byrd's coming off a career year for the Mets and Pirates in which he hit .291/.336/.511 with 24 homers, 88 RBIs and 35 doubles. He played solid corner outfield defense and even shifted over to center on occasion.

"I'll be better than last year," Byrd said, very matter-of-factly. "I've worked very hard, going to Mexico, working on my new mechanics that I had to work on as far as figuring out how to get the ball in the air, on swings being more direct to the ball, using my legs. I've been working on this for about 18 months, and I'm really figuring out my mechanics and understanding it."

It's not as if that season came out of nowhere, either. Byrd was an all-star in 2010, and even if you include his poor 2012, he hit .287 with a .786 OPS from 2007-13. He's been a solid offensive player for years.

But again, the skepticism -- he's 36 in a lineup that also has three 35-year-olds (Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley) and a 34-year-old (Ryan Howard).

The Phillies knew they'd be blasted for making their first offseason move a signing of a player in his mid-30s. But Byrd fit them better than mostly every outfielder available in free agency. The last thing they needed was another expensive, left-handed batter like Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo or Curtis Granderson. Would those players have made them better at the plate? Yes, but they were between four and nine times more expensive and would have made the Phillies very beatable any time a tough lefty or relief specialist took the hill.

And Byrd is not only right-handed, but he also hammers lefties. In 2013, he hit .344 with a .959 OPS against them. The only major-leaguer with a higher batting average against lefties was Dustin Pedroia. Byrd ranked fourth in slugging vs. lefties and third in OPS.

He can still be productive at 36, and he made sense for a team that needed right-handed power, better outfield defense and a contract that wouldn't further mortgage the future.

"All of us do. You keep hearing old, old, old ... we're not an old team," Byrd said. "We can still play. Once you can't play, then you're old. We still have a lot in the tank, we just to have to show that and stay healthy.

"If I was a fan I'd rather have Robinson Cano, I'd rather have [Masahiro] Tanaka. I want those guys. Ruben [Amaro Jr.] wants the guys who he thought would help his team.

"And until we get on the field and actually get to show it ... the fan base is kinda looking at this team like, 'In two years we need to get back to the promised land, we need 10 Robinson Canos. We need the best lineup and a whole staff full of Tanakas.'

"I think they'll be happy once we get on the field and start to produce."

Offseason optimism at its finest. But if Byrd does succeed, putting up numbers that closely resemble his dynamic 2013, the Phillies will be a much, much better team. Even with a 36-year-old rightfielder.