With all due respect to Geovany Soto and Brayan Pena, I think it’s fair to say that we now have our first notable free agent signing of the off-season, as the Phillies have reportedly agreed to a two year contract with outfielder Marlon Byrd. The Phillies were known to be looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder, and Byrd provided a lower cost alternative to the likes of Nelson Cruz. Signing Byrd is a win in that it is not signing Cruz, who I labeled as the #1 “land mine” of this free agent class, so at the very least, Phillies fans should be excited that Byrd will keep them from punting a draft pick for the right to overpay for Cruz’s decline.
But, apart from not-Cruz, what do we expect from Marlon Byrd in the future, and is a two year deal for a guy with his inconsistent history a risk worth taking?
From a broad view, Byrd is pretty easy to describe. He’s been roughly an average hitter over the course of his career, posting a 105 wRC+ in nearly 5,000 plate appearances, while playing all three outfield spots at a respectable level. Now 36, he’s more of a corner outfielder, but still a decent enough defender to have not be a defensive liability. And, even in the more recent past, he looks like roughly an average hitter.
From 2009 to 2013, a span covering almost 2,500 plate appearances, Byrd has a wRC+ of 105, matching his career average. From 2011 to 2013, in about 1,200 plate appearances, he has a 106 wRC+. Over significant periods of at-bats, Byrd has almost always settled in as a roughly league average hitter. However, when you begin looking at the data in one year chunks, Byrd becomes a bit more of an enigma.
His wRC+, by season, over the last three years: 94, 26, 136. One slightly below average season, one truly terrible season, and the best year of his career; not exactly the model of consistency that the larger data sets suggest. Toss in the fact that Byrd served a 50 game suspension for failing a PED test during his miserable 2012 season, and his last few years could rightly be described as perhaps the ultimate baseball roller coaster. At 34, he was the worst player in baseball and then suspended for using a substance, and then at 35, he had the best season of his career and was a middle of the order slugger on a playoff team. How do you evaluate a contract for a player that has recently shown that he could be terrible, awesome, or somewhere in between?
You take the macro view. Judging Byrd by either his 2012 or 2013 season would be a mistake. He wasn’t washed up a year ago, and he’s not a superstar now. Performance fluctuations are just part of baseball, and while not every peak or valley is due to random variation, you’re generally better off assuming a player will perform closer to a larger sample average than relying on a smaller sample of more recent data. And Byrd’s larger samples all suggest that he’s possessed some talent that makes him roughly a league average hitter. Heading into his age-36 and age-37 seasons, he’d have to be expected to perform a bit worse than his career norms, given the normal decline of physical skills, which is why Steamer projects him for a 97 wRC+ next year.
That seems like a reasonable forecast, but probably not an outcome the Phillies would be all that pleased with. For a corner outfielder with okay defense and okay baserunning, a 97 wRC+ over regular playing time adds up to about +1 WAR. Byrd has been about average throughout his career, but now getting older, he should be expected to be a bit below average. At this point in his career, he’s of comparable value to (or maybe a little worse than) a guy like David DeJesus, who the Rays just signed for $10 million over two years. But there’s also a pretty big red flag.
Byrd has historically been a pretty solid contact hitter, able to put the bat on the ball at a roughly average rate. Last year, Byrd started swinging and missing at strikes for the first time in his career. His strikeout rate, which has generally been around 18%, jumped up to 25%. Maybe not coincidentally, he posted the highest isolated slugging mark of his career, so perhaps Byrd traded contact for additional power. I don’t know that betting on a sustained boost in power for an end of career player is really a great risk, though, and Byrd’s 2013 contact rates put him at a place where he’s basically useless if he’s not driving the ball when he does make contact. It’s not absolutely a sign of a big problem ahead, but it’s something to at least be a little concerned about, especially given his age.
The FanGraphs Crowd expected Byrd to land a two year, $15 million contract. He actually got $16 million for two years, so nice job crowd. The Phillies have filled a void, as Byrd will replace a spot that saw Delmon Young get far too many plate appearances last year, but he’s not exactly the answer to their problems. And there’s a decent chance that by next year, Byrd won’t be that different from Delmon Young, providing little or no value as age chips away at his skills.
If the Phillies were a really good team that just needed to plug a gap to put them over the top for the postseaon, 2/$16M for Byrd might be a reasonable enough gamble. It’s not the kind of contract that’s going to kill the Phillies by itself, but it’s another aging player probably making too much money for what he’s going to produce, and it probably doesn’t make the Phillies contenders, nor will it provide any value in the long term.
It’s not the worst move the Phillies could have made. It’s better than signing Nelson Cruz. Barring some pretty great moves to fill out the rest of their roster, though, it’s probably going to push them back towards mediocrity rather than making any real substantial impact on their franchise. If the Phillies are all-in on winning in 2014, then Marlon Byrd as their big off-season acquisition probably isn’t enough. If they’re in transition and building more towards the future, well, a 36 year old doesn’t really do much for them. Instead, this looks like a move that will keep them squarely in between, spinning their wheels in the land of not winning now and not winning in the future.