Analyzing the Marlon Byrd Situation, Part I

Marlon Byrd is a free agent after the 2009 season, and one of the things that you're starting to hear from the media is that the Rangers have to re-sign Marlon Byrd, that they can't let him walk.

I understand why folks would like to see Marlon Byrd come back.  I agree he's been a valuable contributor to the Rangers this year.  And I'd be open to him coming back under the right set of circumstances.

But one of the main reasons that a mid-payroll team wants to build a strong farm system is so that they won't be in a situation where they have to re-sign a Marlon Byrd.  And fortunately, given where the Rangers stand now, they don't have to re-sign Marlon Byrd.  Because the reality is that re-signing Marlon Byrd is a luxury that a team with a $100 million payroll might have, but that a team with a $60-65 million payroll -- like the Rangers apparently are -- doesn't have.

* * *

First off, let's get a handle on what it is that Marlon Byrd has been for the Rangers.

Coming here as a free agent prior to the 2007 season, it was expected that Byrd was going to be Kenny Lofton's platoon partner in centerfield and the team's fourth outfielder.

However, early on, Ron Washington became enamored with Jerry Hairston, Jr., and decided Hairston would be Lofton's platoon partner.  And since Hairston was supposed to be the utility infielder, the Rangers decided to keep Matt Kata instead of Byrd, because Kata had a hot spring and he could be the utility infielder instead and besides, maybe Rudy could work with Kata and Kata would be the new Mark DeRosa.

So Byrd, who had signed a major league deal and was on the 40 man roster, was put on waivers at the end of spring training, cleared waivers, and had the right to declare free agency.  But Byrd -- apparently thinking that a team that had JHJ and Matt Kata on the bench would be looking to AAA for reinforcements pretty quickly -- chose to go to Oklahoma. 

Byrd put up a 984 OPS in AAA in a month-and-a-half, Hairston and Kata were terrible, as anyone who looked at their careers rather than a couple of weeks in March could have predicted, and on May 26, the Rangers purchased Byrd's contract.  Remarkably, Byrd ended up playing in 108 of the team's remaining 114 games in 2007,* and had a solid season, playing about half the time in center and about half the time in a COF spot, and putting up a .281 EQA.

* Byrd was 6th on the Rangers in games played that season, just behind Gerald Laird, Brad Wilkerson, and Sammy Sosa, and just ahead of Frank Catalanotto and Ramon Vazquez.  And that probably tells you everything you need to know about the Rangers' 2007 season.

Heading into the 2008 season, there was much discussion about whether the Rangers should sell high on Byrd, who was coming off the best year of his career, and was seen as a much better fit for a team with playoff aspirations than a team like the Rangers, who were clearly in rebuilding mode.  Spring training was full of stories about the Cubs having interest in Byrd, with the Rangers demanding a quality pitching prospect plus Matt Murton for Byrd, while Jim Hendry held firm on Murton and maybe an organizational depth arm.  There was a decent amount of carping among Rangers fans that Jon Daniels was being greedy, that he should take Murton for Byrd and go on his way, rather than risk Byrd regressing and seeing his value diminish.

Byrd was awful early, playing on a bad knee, went on the d.l., came back, and in his first appearance, pinch hit for Ramon Vazquez with the bases loaded in the 7th, down one at home against Seattle, and hit into a GIDP.

Now, let's put this into perspective.  The Rangers were 20-21, and a win would get the team back to .500.  Ramon Vazquez had been a surprisingly part of the team's success, with a .344/.419/.516 line heading into that game.  The Rangers had won 11 of their last 14 with Byrd on the shelf, and there seemed to be a sentiment among some fans that Byrd no longer playing every day had something to do with it.  A win against Seattle would mean a sweep of the M's in their three game series, and would result in the Rangers getting to 2 games back of first place.

Instead, Byrd hit into a DP, resulting in an epic LSB GDT meltdown, the Rangers lost in extra innings, and Byrd became persona non grata among Rangers fans.

And then a strange thing happened.  Byrd kept playing, and he hit.  And he hit some more.  And he played almost every day, sometimes in center, sometimes in a COF spot, and he performed.  And at the end of the year, Byrd had posted a .295 EQA, played good defense in the outfield, and was a valuable contributor on the first Ranger team to finish in better than third place since 1999.

Come 2009, though, Byrd looked to be the odd man out.  Nelson Cruz was going to play right field, Hank Blalock was going to split the DH role with Andruw Jones, Josh Hamilton was in center, and David Murphy was going to be in left field.  Byrd was going to play, no question about that, but as the fourth outfielder, the guy filling in the gaps. 

And what happened?  Byrd is, as of right now, leading the Rangers in games played, with 102 games in center and most of the rest in left field.  Byrd's offense hasn't been as good as it was in 2007 or 2008, but he still has put up a respectable .267 EQA, which is right around average for a centerfielder.*

* BP has Byrd at 1.2 runs below average for his position offensively, but that is weighted about 25% towards LF and 75% towards CF, given that Byrd has split his time between the two positions about 25/75.

So, what have the Rangers gotten from Byrd over the past three seasons?

They've gotten a solid starting major league outfielder.  FanGraphs has him as being around a 2.5 win player in 2007 and 2009, and around a 3.5 win player in 2008, worth a little over $10 million in the odd years and a little over $15 million in 2008.  

They've gotten a guy who gave them quality offense in 2007 and 2008, and whose offense has slipped in 2009 but is still acceptable from a centerfielder. 

Byrd's defense has been a mixed bag.  His defensive reputation coming here was as your classic tweener, above average in a corner, below average in center.  His UZR in center has been 0.3 in 63 games in 2007, 5.9 in 57 games in 2008, and -4.5 games in 102 games so far in 2009.  His UZR in both corners has been comfortably above average.

Dewan's +/- system shows much the same...the enhanced +/- has Byrd at +11 in 3 years in LF, +10 in 3 years in RF, and -8 in 3 years in CF, with 2008 being his best year in center defensively.  If we look at runs saved in +/-, he's an aggregate +10 in the corners the past three years, -4 in center.

So that's what Byrd has been...some fans might have railed about him sucking, and a lot of us have been frustrated by Ron Washington's recent seeming overreliance on Byrd and his tendency to hit him cleanup, but once the Rangers corrected their mistake and called him up in 2007, he's performed.

Marlon Byrd hasn't been a superstar by any means, but I think there's no question, in looking at what he's done from 2007-2009, that he's exceeded expectations and been a solid contributor, a guy whose performance would warrant an every day job on a good team.

In the next installment, we'll consider what the Rangers should do with Marlon Byrd going forward.

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