November 13, 2013
Signed OF-R Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal worth $16 million, with a vesting/club option. [11/12]
The winter's first polarizing free-agent signing tells us three things: 1) the crazy market forecasts were probably correct; 2) the Phillies are not demolishing their roster; and 3) nobody knows what to make of Byrd.
It's a small sample to be sure, but some near the game predicted the market would erupt in this manner. ESPN.com's Jim Bowden nailed the contract while Jon Heyman polled an agent and general manager who were off by only a million apiece, in each direction; you could chalk it up as dumb luck, except Bowden has an excellent track record at pegging these things. This is not the same market as 2009, when Byrd received a three-year deal for similar performance at a younger age:
While the middle of November is too early to make bold proclamations about the market's landscape, it's easy to connect the dots here. In theory, inflated free-agent salaries will increase the value of cost-controlled players; therefore, in theory, shrinking the non-tender market. We'll learn more about the reality of those theories in the coming weeks; for now it's just something to keep in mind.
Here's something else to keep in mind: Ruben Amaro Jr. views this winter as a chance to add rather than dismantle. How can you explain his decision to sign a 36-year-old outfielder to a 73-win team? The worthy talking point then is whether the Phillies ought to proceed down this path.
Realistically, Amaro has two choices: bottom out and rebuild, or take another shot. Standing pat is worst-case scenario, since it does nothing to change the Phillies' short- or long-term outlooks. Amaro should try to make the postseason in 2014—a daunting task but, sadly, their best shot over the next few seasons—or fold and aim for a year to be determined. Do anything, just don't sit on the sideline this winter and waste everyone's time with another mediocre season.
Rebuilds are always more alluring from the outside, where the return for veteran players has untarnished potential; but, without knowing for sure, it's tough to say that path is paved with gold. Besides, the extra playoff spots provide hope and incentive for rank-and-file teams to secure more marginal wins—more so now than eight years ago, when Nate Silver drew the lines of demarcation. As unlikely as the Phillies are to outperform their projections and reach the postseason, what team did look likely to outrun its anticipated pace at the onset of winter?
Amaro and the Phillies will continue to push forward, which raises the question: how far, exactly, does Byrd take them? Few free agents are tougher to peg than the veteran outfielder, whose combination of age (36) and recent circumstance makes him as unconventional as they come. Around this time last year, Byrd was auditioning for a minor-league contract by playing in winter ball. Now he's signing a sweet, guaranteed two-year deal. Baseball is a weird game.
There are two points worth making on Byrd's performance. The first is he's been an above-average hitter each season since 2007 with two exceptions: 2011 and 2012. Those years are noteworthy for the lagging production, but also because 2011 was the year in which Byrd was hit in the face with a pitch. How that traumatic event impacted his performance is anyone's guess; here's mine: it hurt. Fear is an oft-ignored aspect of hitting, one that becomes tough to overcome once its presence is felt. You can hardly blame Byrd if he took longer than a season to feel comfortable again in the box, nor your wandering mind if it ties that fear to his 50-game PED suspension (though don't mistake that for a defense or justification).
The other point is the Phillies don't need Byrd to repeat his career season in order to provide value. If he's merely an above-average hitter for two seasons—much like Raul Ibanez, a similarly old corner outfielder signed by the Phillies—Amaro would probably take that with a smile. After all, if this is the start of a wild and crazy winter, then Byrd's contract could look good by February.