Marlon Byrd had 24 homers, 88 RBIs and 35 doubles last season. (AP)
The Phillies’ first move of the offseason doubled as the first somewhat splashy signing of an American free agent by any team -- Marlon Byrd for two years, $16 million (see story).
Byrd, 36, is coming off the best year of his career, in which he hit .291/.336/.511 for the Mets and Pirates and followed it up going 8 for 22 (.364) with a homer, two doubles and five RBIs for the Bucs in the postseason. You know about his Phillies ties -- he was a 10th-round pick by them in 1999 and spent three-plus seasons with them in the early 2000s.
The signing of Byrd to play right field and protect the lefties in the middle of the Phils’ order was met with criticism from fans, who have cited his age and 2012 PED bust as concerns. (Byrd tested positive in 2012 for tamoxifen, a chemical found in the medication Nolvadex, which Byrd was using to reduce the excess tissue in his breasts. Turned out, tamoxifen was banned by MLB and Byrd paid the price for being unaware.)
But a two-year pact protects the Phillies. It is by no means a large commitment. And when you look at the free-agent landscape, Ruben Amaro Jr. didn’t have many choices. The Phillies needed their right fielder to hit right-handed, something Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson don’t do.
The top right-handed free-agent outfielder was Nelson Cruz. Would you prefer Byrd at two years, $16 million, or Cruz and his defensive deficiencies and even more recent PED bust at two years, $32 million? That’s the low end of what Cruz is due this winter.
Byrd’s contract comes after a career year, so there is skepticism he can repeat it. But it’s not like we’re talking about a guy who’s had one solid major-league season. From 2007-11 Byrd hit .291/.346/.445.
Byrd brings the Phillies’ lineup two skills it badly needed -- lefty-mashing and defense. He hit .344 with a .959 OPS against lefties last year, and has hit .300 off them dating back to 2011. His defense is unquestionably better than Darin Ruf’s or Domonic Brown’s in right field. Byrd has graded out positively in the outfield in three of the last four seasons, according to Fangraphs, and in seven of the last nine.
He had 10 outfield assists playing RF last season. With Byrd and Brown flanking Ben Revere, the Phillies should have two above-average outfield arms to make up for Revere’s most glaring weakness.
If Byrd performs at a level close to his 2013 -- when he had 24 homers, 88 RBIs and 35 doubles -- the deal will be a clear win for the Phils. He was essentially Hunter Pence last season. Pence, while six years younger, made himself $90 million this offseason for that type of production.
In this marketplace, $16 million in total is what it takes to sign a Marlon Byrd, especially so early in the offseason. The price of this move shouldn’t hinder the Phils significantly in making other moves, as it adds an $8 million average annual value to their luxury tax payroll, which is now at around $131.5 million for nine players: Byrd, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, Miguel A. Gonzalez and Mike Adams.
Throw in the cost-controlled or arbitration salaries for Kyle Kendrick, Antonio Bastardo, Brown, Revere, Freddy Galvis, Cody Asche, Ruf, the backup catcher and a handful of young relievers, and the Phils are looking at about $13 million more.
That would put them around $145 million for 19-20 players. Their opening day payroll last year was north of $160 million, and the luxury tax threshold actually increases in 2014 from $178 million to $189 million. There is still money Amaro can spend to improve the rotation and bullpen, and to either sign Carlos Ruiz or another veteran catcher.
Some may say the Phillies got older on Monday, or didn’t improve as much as they could have. But Byrd is a solid player who makes them a more balanced team offensively and defensively. And even if the worst-case scenario plays out and Byrd doesn’t contribute, he won’t be on the books for long, nor will he be owed an eight-figure annual salary.