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May 13, 2009

Prospectus Today

Feeling Byrnes'd

by Joe Sheehan

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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.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Josh Byrnes,  The Who,  Jarrod Washburn

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

fielding99

Ryan Church is a candidate for this list.

May 13, 2009 12:23 PM
rating: 0
 
Aaron/YYZ

I'm not sure that Ryan Church gets enough respect from the baseball community that someone will actually overpay him... wasn't he slated to lose time to Dan Murphy earlier this year?

May 13, 2009 13:24 PM
rating: 0
 
3n2sports

He's slated to lose time to Tatis and Shef now...I was told the Mets took issue with his work ethic or attitude. And by that I mean I read it somewhere on mlb.com, fangraphs, or here...

May 13, 2009 23:49 PM
rating: 0
 
ElAngelo
(942)

Jeffrey Hammonds is insulted to not be mentioned in this article.

May 13, 2009 12:47 PM
rating: 2
 
Darsox64

That was more of the Brewers' failure to identify park effects than overreacting to a late career surge. His eqa fell all of 13 points the following year, just under a much different context.

May 13, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: 3
 
amazin_mess

I think the glow around Arizona has burst. The team is terrible and even a healthy Webb wouldn't change too much. They can't hit and their supposedly brilliant GM traded away a 40 HR bat. Upton is the lone bright spot.

Speaking of Webb, he looked so bad in April I'd be shocked if he weren't headed for major surgery.

May 13, 2009 12:48 PM
rating: -2
 
nalex83

4 innings.

May 13, 2009 13:43 PM
rating: 2
 
TGisriel

It is rare that I get to point to a good decision by the Orioles in recent years past, but note that even the Orioles passed on keeping or signing Byrnes or Matthews.

May 13, 2009 12:51 PM
rating: 3
 
Darsox64

Isn't this playing monday morning quarterback. We shouldn't assume that Scutaro is necessarily a .800 OPS hitter, but given the last six weeks of production, it certainly suggests he's a playable option (at least in comparison to what we knew at the beginning of the season). What about Mark Loretta, career backup, who went gangbusters in 2003, maintained down-ballot MVP performance for two years, and followed that by being a playable starter at second for another three years? What about Jayson Werth or Shane Victorino, both of whom had blemishes like "platoon player" or "fourth OF who might get run down if he plays full time" but have still blossomed into above average starters?

What about Casey Blake? He was nothing special in the minor leagues and got no real shot until he was 29, but he's maintained a similar level of production since then. Or Ronnie Belliard's late career surge towards adequacy? Or Placido Polanco's emergence from fifth infielder to allstar calibre 2B?

Eric Byrnes is a player who had one fantastic season where he was probably one of the top twenty players in the NL. It was a fluke and you called it. It doesn't make it impossible that a good portion of Scutaro's or Overbay's improvement to be real. Byrnes was a dynamic player that year and it looked like a real breakthrough for a player whose power and speed skill set would age well. The amount of money they gave him was likely above his market rate; that was a real mistake. But, given the information Arizona had at the time, it may have made sense to make some type of commitment to him. Stating that Byrnes's downfall from cornerstone to useless is pure monday morning quarterback, discovering a narrative in the data that isn't there.

May 13, 2009 12:56 PM
rating: 0
 
rmaurino

Joe called the Byrnes contact a bad deal when it happened. That would make him a SUNDAY AFTERNOON quarterback. A monday morning quarterback would only now realize that it's a bad contract.

May 13, 2009 13:14 PM
rating: 2
 
Darsox64

Yeah, as I said, he got that one right. He sure didn't get Victorino right. Paying attention to one and ignoring the other is confirmation bias. Pretending that you can tell the difference between the evaluation of Victorino Byrnes is monday morning quarterback. Albeit, the Phillies didn't give Victorino $30 million, but they entered 2008 without a genuine backup for him if he were to implode (unless you count shifting Werth to center and playing Jenkins everyday in right to have been a legitimate option at that point in time).

May 13, 2009 14:18 PM
rating: 6
 
Matt Hunter

Yeah, but isn't the article about not giving out stupid contracts, and not about "going into a season with a genuine backup"

May 13, 2009 14:27 PM
rating: 1
 
Darsox64

And if the opposite happened, that Byrnes remained a 7 win player and Victorino fell on his face, this article would have been about the Phillies' irrational, misplaced trust in Victorino cost them a playoff spot in 2008 and how easily predictable that was. While Byrnes' contract would have been ignored.

A better example: years ago, BP viciously attacked the Mariners for signing Ibanez after he had a couple of ok years in Kansas City. In a later annual, whoever wrote the player comment for Ibanez apologized and said whoever wrote the original attack was no longer with BP. The attack on Byrnes is the exact same thing, except the coin flip turned heads instead of tails this time around and Joe got it right.

May 13, 2009 15:44 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

1) I was wrong about Victorino. When I was 17, I traded infallibility for arrogance and the ability to make a killer chicken marsala. It's worked out reasonably well.

2) The comment in the book was a joke.

May 13, 2009 20:34 PM
 
Lou Doench

Joe, talk about a bad trade! I learned my killer chicken marsala from a cookbook.

May 14, 2009 05:55 AM
rating: 0
 
gregorybfoley

I don't see the similarities between Victorino and Byrnes. Victorino is solidly in his peak years at age 28 and has never experienced a severe decline like Byrnes did. In fact Victorino has been consistent since he made the big leagues hitting .760, .770 and .799 OPS over the last three years.

May 14, 2009 08:23 AM
rating: 0
 
duffke

Victorino is signed for one year at just over 3 million and Werth is signed for 2 years at 10 million. I'm not sure how bringing them up debunks the idea that you shouldn't sign someone long-term for a lot of money based on a few months of success and ignoring their entire history since neither is signed long term and the Phillies wouldn't have been out a lot of money if one/both of them flopped.

May 14, 2009 16:11 PM
rating: 2
 
kraffel

With Buster Posey waiting, the Giants would be crazy to sign Molina to an expensive, multi-year contract. (But then this is the team that likes to sign players in the 30s to expensive multi-year contracts (e.g., Dave Roberts).)

May 13, 2009 13:00 PM
rating: 0
 
billm21

I was convinced before reading this article that the contract given to Byrnes and the resultant trades of Quentin and Hairston are the biggest factors in the current decline of the Diamondbacks. Joe's excellent analysis just confirms my opinions. Added to the equation is the organization's ongoing delusion that Chad Tracy and Tony Clark can ever again be productive hitters. With no capable veterans to lead the way, it's easy to see why the Diamondbacks' young hitters have mostly regressed in the last two years. It's hard to believe that the team that was the top organization in baseball just a couple of years ago may need to start a rebuilding effort.

May 13, 2009 13:04 PM
rating: -1
 
krissbeth

Christian Guzman, whatever PECOTA says, is a candidate for this list, on age and career performance standards, whatever happened in the limited ABs over the past two years.

May 13, 2009 13:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Christopher Taylor

You're attributing the Jays performance to Scutaro? That's just silly. Since May 1st he's .261/.329/.381 - almost exactly his career norms. The Jays are 8-3 in that span. As long as Scutaro plays average SS and hits his career norms, he's doing more than any option they have and cheaper than any option available on the FA market last winter.

There's not much to suggest that JP will overpay Scutaro when the time comes for a contract. He dumped a player with more grit scrap in Reed Johnson. Sure there's Eckstein but that wasn't a terrible gamble.

Look elsewhere for your blame for the Jays making your pre-season predictions look bad. How about Cito? (After his hire the Jays have the best record in MLB). Nah. Gene Tenance? Nah.

I'm not saying the Jays are "for real" (I don't particularly care) but they were a good team last year and JP has been focusing on drafting and obtaining pitching FOR YEARS... there's no accident that there's pitching depth even on a staff rife with injury; that's been the GMs focus. My advice, sit back and enjoy a team beat up on the big boys and cheer when 43,000 show up in a stadium usually filled with 20,000-something. It is more fun than wringing your hands over empty seats down the baselines at the house that was steroids built.

May 13, 2009 13:44 PM
rating: -3
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

"My advice, sit back and enjoy a team beat up on the big boys"

--

You'll have to notify me when this happens.

If the AL consisted of just 11 teams, the Blue Jays would clearly have been considered among the best in the league, maybe the best. Most of the argument for them as a fourth-place team is 54 games against the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees.

They've played one of those games. They'll play two more this week, then not again for a month.

I appreciate the enthusiasm of Jays fans, but there's no way you can evaluate this team, relative to preseason expectations, without considering the scheduling issue. I'm not clear on why this is considered an insult, but trust me, if you'd put the Jays in another division, I'd have picked them to do no worse than finish second, and perhaps to win.

And for all intents and purposes that's the "division" they've played in to date.

May 13, 2009 14:10 PM
 
Christopher Taylor

"I appreciate the enthusiasm of Jays fans, but there's no way you can evaluate this team, relative to preseason expectations, without considering the scheduling issue"

There's also no way you can evaluate the team now, relative to the prediction without considering that the team has already gone 23-12. Regression to the mean doesn't wipe wins off the board. If you want to weight the evidence already collected as meaning nothing, that's your business, but that's an extreme re-weighting for the strength of schedule, especially for a team that was very good 3/5 of the season last year and has only upgraded its line-up. It isn't enthusiasm to apply Bayes' theorem to re-evaluate ones' pre-season projections, just rational.

Also last I checked, the end of May is about two weeks away, not a month away, when the Jays will play the Red Sox at home.

May 13, 2009 18:51 PM
rating: 2
 
R.A.Wagman

I love the Jays as much as anyone and more than most, but they only pull in 35000+ when the Red Sox or the Yankees are in town. And a good portion of that surplus crowd is made up of fans of the visiting team.

May 13, 2009 16:33 PM
rating: -2
 
Christopher Taylor

43,000 was the official figure for the Doc-AJ game on Tuesday.

Also, I've noticed a substantial drop in "other team fans" in the past three years. Maybe they don't sit at field level anymore (or something as that's the only place I sit). One (or two) seasons back there weren't any Red Sox - Yankees games at the Dome on Fri-Sat or Sun. That year the lack of other team's fans was VERY noticeable.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Sox/Yanks games draw extra fans. But the proportion of fans that come just to see the Yanks/Sox has gone down in the past few years in 2006 I had a 15 game "flex pack" of tickets made up of exclusively of Sox/Yankees games - each of the Sox games were beside a lovely older couple who rooted for the Sox and who were from upstate New York (where I lived for a time and was surprised by the number of Sox fans there relative to Yankee fans). No such thing has happened since. Heck, I sat beside a large contingent of Tigers fans (from Windsor, ON) for the 2nd game of the season.

Also knowing Toronto (born and raised, I was) and talking to the fans who go to the games a fair number of "other team's fans" are actually FROM Toronto. I can't explain it, but I understand it because I as a young teen I had at least as much Yankee gear as Jays gear.

My point - as it has become easier to get tickets for the Yankees/Sox (as it must be with expanded capacity and/or dwindling interest) the number of the surplus crowd being visit team fan has gone down. However the Sox/Yankees fans draw more because that's what they do around the league... at least half of the extra attendance are the "prestige crowd" as Toronto is a city whose citizens tend to be both slaves to prestige and faddishness (see the success of a b-grade psychology team).

May 14, 2009 09:52 AM
rating: -1
 
antoine6

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. The Phillies signed Jayson Werth to a 2-year, 10 million deal based on basically a half-season of full-time play in his later peak (age 29 season). That seems to have turned out pretty well, as Werth is one of the most underrated players in baseball, a 25-25 guy with great OBP skills and plus defense in right field.

May 13, 2009 14:35 PM
rating: 3
 
SGreenwell

I think Werth isn't really comparable because he started out as a catcher in (I believe) the Blue Jays' system. It took him a while to establish himself, and he's mostly been a capable back-up, not a guy who cratered at one point like Byrnes.

May 13, 2009 19:16 PM
rating: -1
 
3n2sports

I was glad to not see Werth listed as one of the potential future busts. His skill set has always been real and tangible in some way. He's had just terrible issues with bad luck injuries thanks mainly to AJ Burnett. The resulting wrist problems caused the Dodgers to cut him loose and the Phillies decided to gamble on him. It took some time to get consistency out of him, but he's healed up now and back to being a star caliber athlete. Again, I'm glad to not see his name in the article because I would have been pretty confident in calling that incorrect.

May 13, 2009 23:56 PM
rating: 1
 
jtrichey

30 years from now I will remember one thing about Eric Byrnes. He will dive sometimes 3-4 steps after he catches a fly ball. He is a bigger outfield hot dog than anyone I've ever seen play the game.

May 13, 2009 18:00 PM
rating: 0
 
bhalpern

Did you ever see Rickey Henderson? Because he is "the greatest" hot dog ever.

May 13, 2009 18:21 PM
rating: 1
 
abcjr2

Hard to believe that you can write an article on Scutaro and Byrnes without mentioning that Billy Beane spotted both of them, got some productive use out of both, and let them go when they got a little more expensive. (Although, in Scutuaro's case, considering the injury histories of Ellis and Chavez, he should have ponied up the $1.1 million per, instead of trying to backfill with players being paid the minimum.)

May 13, 2009 18:28 PM
rating: 0
 
SGreenwell

I'm always reminded of the line from "Veeck as in Wreck" when I hear about these insane contracts for middle relievers, scrappy outfielders and guys getting the mid-level exception in the NBA:

It isn’t the high price of stars that is expensive; it’s the high price of mediocrity.

May 13, 2009 19:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Dan Wade

Michael Cuddyer was Eric Byrnes before Eric Byrnes was.

May 13, 2009 21:45 PM
rating: 1
 
Lou Doench

I'm forwarding this article to the sports talk guys here in Cincy, because whilst the Redlegs have been throttling the Snakes this week, there has been a lot of talk about how Eric Byrnes would be the perfect solution for our LF hole.

May 14, 2009 06:01 AM
rating: 0
 
erniepoe

Someone needs to send this article to Brian Sabean. I just know that clown is going to re-sign Molina and stall Buster Posey's development.

He should be accepting trade offers for Molina as we speak. But no. He thinks the Giants are in contention.

May 14, 2009 17:08 PM
rating: 1
 
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