Jim Salisbury goes one-on-one with Ruben Amaro
The Phillies drafted Marlon Byrd in 1999 and brought him to the majors in 2002. (AP)
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Marlon Byrd served a 50-game suspension for testing positive for using a performance-enhancing drug in 2012. If he gets nailed again, he will sit out for 100 games.
So, one has to wonder whether Byrd gave Ruben Amaro Jr. a man-to-man assurance that he won’t slip up again before the Phillies’ general manager lavished him with a two-year, $16 million contract on Tuesday (see story).
“I don’t think I have to say that,” Byrd, 36, said in telephone interview Wednesday. “The first suspension was dumb enough. To have two and 100 games – I’d be done in the game.”
Byrd’s 2012 suspension -- not to mention his .210 batting average in 143 at-bats with the Cubs and Red Sox – left him languishing on last winter’s free-agent market until Feb. 1. The Mets took a flier on him, signed him to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training and got a big payoff on their $700,000 investment when Byrd made the club and hit .285 with 21 homers and 71 RBIs in 117 games. Byrd’s rise from the ashes earned him a late-season trade to Pittsburgh, where he played in the postseason.
After spending last winter playing in Mexico and waiting for work in the big leagues, Byrd jumped at the chance to return to the Phillies, who drafted him in 1999 and brought him to the majors in 2002.
“I feared my career was over last winter,” Byrd said. “From the suspension to the numbers I put up, it wasn’t conducive to me getting a contract.
“It really helped going to Mexico and not only showing I could still play, but that I still had the desire to play. I’m lucky and appreciative that the Mets gave me a chance.”
Byrd is the first notable free agent to sign this offseason.
“I didn’t want to wait around,” he said. “The Phillies were aggressive with an amazing offer. I didn’t want to wait to see how much money I could get. I have friends on that team, my wife (Andrea) is from there. It’s definitely a blessing.”
The Phils traded Byrd to Washington for Endy Chavez in May 2005. That started a journey that saw Byrd blossom into an all-star with the Cubs in 2010. He is a lifetime .280 hitter who has twice reached 20 homers and 80 RBIs in a season. He destroyed left-handed pitching to the tune of .344 with eight homers, 31 RBIs and a .959 OPS last season. The Phillies hope his right-handed bat plays well in the No. 5 spot in the batting order and forms a nice partnership with cleanup man Ryan Howard, who is expected to be healthy for the first time in two years in 2014.
“I think I’m a smarter hitter than my first time in Philadelphia,” Byrd said. “I’ve faced a lot of pitchers. I think I know what catchers are trying to do. I was kind of a raw talent early. Now I know how to hit big-league pitching.”
Byrd said he has remained close with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard – “The big three,” he called them – and he likes many of the Phillies young players. He mentioned the promise of Domonic Brown and Ben Revere and raved about the arms of Jake Diekman and Justin DeFratus.
Now, a year after nearly being out of the game, Byrd can call these guys teammates.
“To go from trying to make a team in 2013 to being a starting outfielder for the Phillies with a two-year contract,” Byrd said. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”