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May 13, 2009
On July 30, 2005, the Colorado Rockies traded Eric Byrnes to the Baltimore Orioles straight up for Larry Bigbie. This was just three weeks after trading the late Joe Kennedy for Byrnes, who was terrible in the black and purple, hitting just .189/.283/.226 in 15 games. Bigbie had fewer than 100 plate appearances left in his career, and at the time was a 27-year-old whose career was in full reverse two seasons past a career-best 821 OPS. It was a trade of disappointment for disappointment, both teams hoping that the new guy would give them what their current one didn't.
Four months after the trade, the Orioles didn't bother offering Byrnes arbitration, choosing to let him go as a free agent rather than risk being tied to him for 2006 at a salary above the pro-rated share $2 million they'd paid for his services. Byrnes had hit .192/.246/.299 for Baltimore, and management spent much of September choosing to play David Newhan out of position in left field rather than start Byrnes. Keep in mind that the 2006 Orioles used the following outfielders in order of innings played (with Nick Markakis leading the team): Corey Patterson, Jeff Conine, Brandon Fahey, Jay Gibbons, and then Newhan. To cut ties with you in the face of that list is a pretty vigorous rejection of you as a baseball player. Although Byrnes had the skills of a solid fourth outfielder, his peripatetic and at times pathetic 2005 season threatened his professional existence.
Byrnes signed with the Diamondbacks that winter for a couple of bucks more than he made in '06, and proceeded to open the year as the youth movement in an outfield featuring Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green. He shared time with Jeff DaVanon initially, but was more or less the everyday center fielder by May 1, and he held that role through the end of the season. A big month of May (.364/.406/.717) buoyed his overall line and bolstered the perception that he was having a strong season. In fact, Byrnes' poor plate discipline (88 strikeouts and 32 unintentional walks in 606 plate appearances) drove a low OBP that hampered his value to the Diamondbacks. The team's 22-33 finish to the season was in no small part helped by Byrnes' .233/.256/.427 line in that time.
Despite Byrnes' second-half collapse, which continued a pattern for him, the D'backs offered him arbitration and agreed to a one-year deal with Byrnes for $4.6 million in February. The peculiarity here is that the Diamondbacks had two excellent young outfielders in Chris B. Young and Carlos Quentin, as well as aging prospects Scott Hairston and Jeff Salazar, and überprospect Justin Upton racing through the system. How Byrnes would fit in with that group, given his limitations, was a critical question heading into the D'backs' 2007 season.
Byrnes answered the questions by once again playing well at the start of the season, while the young players around him didn't. Although he didn't have a regular lineup spot—he slotted first, second, fourth, and fifth in the season's first month—or position, Byrnes started every game and had his career year, batting .306/.363/.496 in the first half and cementing his position as a fan favorite with his all-out style of play. In early August, despite the presence of all those outfield prospects, despite Byrnes being a career fourth outfielder with fourth-outfielder skills, despite his being 31 years old with a history of second-half fades... despite all of that, the Diamondbacks signed Byrnes to a three-year contract through 2010, a deal worth $30 million.
According to Cot's, the deal was signed on August 7, 2007. Since then, Byrnes has batted .222/.288/.380 in 527 PA, with 31 stolen bases and seven times caught. He has simply been awful, a drag on an offense that has had enough problems getting going. Signing him was in part responsible for the trade of Carlos Quentin, and while that deal led to acquiring Dan Haren, it's not hard to see a universe where the D'backs might have had both players. Byrnes is popular, and has red hair, and gets his uniform dirty, and absolutely kills the team's run scoring. He signed his contract at the absolute peak of his market value, less than two years after his career possibly looked over, and right as he was about to collapse as a player.
Now, many of you know all of this, and my point today actually isn't to put Jeff Moorad and Josh Byrnes through the ringer for this decision. No, my point is to hold Eric Byrnes up as a cautionary tale, because as you look around the league, it's not hard to see the next Eric Byrnes, the player in his late peak, maybe 29, maybe 30 or 31, who's started the 2009 season by having the best six weeks of his life. Maybe he's shown some signs of actual improvement, as Byrnes did in '07. Maybe he's popular with the hometown fans. Maybe he's perceived as a key element in some surprising success.
The lesson to take from Eric Byrnes is to be wary of these guys. Enjoy the performance. Celebrate the wins. Count the cash as the people come out to the park. Then step back and regard the player in the context of his career. The worst contracts, the very worst ones, aren't the nine-figure seven-year deals doled out by the richest teams to the best players. The worst contracts are smaller, shorter, and given to guys who caught a wave at just the right time and fooled a GM into thinking it was real. I'm showing you Eric Byrnes, but how hard is it to peek past Byrnes and see Gary Matthews Jr., back further and see David Bell, still further to Willie Blair? It cannot be said enough: you pay a player for his future, not his past, and if you're unable to distinguish one from another, if you regard every uptick as a new level of performance, you'll waste money and eventually lose your job.
What players have the potential to join that list above? Well, Marco Scutaro fits almost to a T. A solid extra infielder for most of his career, Scutaro, 33, started the year hitting for power and drawing walks like he never had before. His batting average has settled back to his career norms, and he hasn't homered in a while, but the increased walk rate is still there, driving a high OBP. He's having a strong defensive year at shortstop, and the Blue Jays have the best record in baseball in part because of his performance. Throw in that Scutaro has that Byrnesian sheen of scrappiness, and the potential for a mistake contract based on a career half-season is high. Like Byrnes, Scutaro is just a good bench player elevated by circumstance to a starring role, and his performance, over time, will reflect that status.
Jarrod Washburn spent the last three years giving up lots of hits for the Mariners, who signed the lefty to a four-year deal worth $37.5 million back in the winter of 2005-06. Now 34, Washburn is having his best season since his last walk year, with a 2.68 ERA in six starts and a strong 28/8 K/UIBB ratio. That season is Washburn's only one with an ERA below 4.00 (3.20) since 2002. Washburn has been a little lucky as well, giving up just a .252 batting average on balls in play, and just three homers on 53 fly balls allowed. If he continues to combine peak performance—that K/BB ratio—with some good fortune, some team is going to find itself on the wrong end of his regression in both areas at age 35 and beyond, and at a hefty price.
Bengie Molina has become a more effective hitter than you would have predicted from the first part of his career. Through age 27, he had a .263/.301/.365 line, picking up a Gold Glove and a championship ring in the process. Since then, he's hitting .285/.314/.446, and since joining the Giants, .285/.309/.452. Just looking at the numbers that can drive a contract, Molina drove in 95 runs last year and has 28 so far this year, on his way to more than 100. He's 34, carries a strong defensive reputation, and his lack of walks—he picked up his first last night—and OBP are often overlooked in the market. With his willingness to swing the bat and placement in the middle of the order, a startlingly high RBI total, and startlingly high 2010 salary, are in the offing.
The biggest financial mistakes are made by teams who convince themselves that what they just saw was a reality they might expect to enjoy into the future. Get fooled—as the Diamondbacks so clearly did in 2006—and you pay for that mistake for years.