Free Byrd

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Flash back to August 27, 2013. Less than two years ago on the calendar, but it feels like a lifetime.

Cincinnati, at 74-58, began the day in third place, 3.5 games behind first-place St. Louis and 3 games behind Pittsburgh. The Redlegs—defending NL Central champions—were right in the thick of the race, despite almost no contribution from a group of jokers sent out to play left field. Ryan Ludwick injured his shoulder on Opening Day, and a collection of replacements (Chris Heisey, Xavier Paul, Derrick Robinson) provided little production all year long. When the dust settled on the season, Reds left fielders had posted a collective slash line of .250/.313/.374 with 14 homers and 65 RBI.

On August 27, however, New York Mets left fielder Marlon Byrd was available. He was in the midst of a resurgent season, hitting .285/.330/.518 with 21 homers and 71 RBI to that point. New York had placed Byrd on waivers, as is customary for many players in August of each season. The Mets were 58-71, in fourth place, 19.5 games out of first. He was only making $700,000, but he was available for the taking.

Could the Reds have used a cheap upgrade in left field? Sure. Unfortunately, Reds GM Walt Jocketty didn’t claim Byrd off waivers. This had two effects. First, obviously, Cincinnati didn’t get the benefit of having a productive player in left field down the stretch. Second, since Jocketty didn’t place a waiver claim on Byrd, teams ahead of the Reds in the standings had a chance to claim him, and the Pirates did just that. Pittsburgh proceeded to work out a trade for Byrd, and placed him immediately in the middle of their lineup.

From that point until the end of the season, Byrd hit .318/.357/.486 for the Pirates, and he contributed a homer and four RBI to Pittsburgh’s season-ending sweep of the Reds. You’ll remember the end of 2013, I’m sure; the Reds lost their last five games to give away any chance of winning the division. They settled for the second wild card spot, and this.

Okay, that’s enough of a bummer history lesson for one day. We’re here to talk about Marlon Byrd who, a year and a half later—a year and a half too late—joined the Reds after a trade with the Phillies for Ben Lively and cash.

His season could not have started more poorly. After Cincinnati’s game on May 1, Byrd was hitting .163/.190/.263 with just four extra-base hits and only two walks in 84 plate appearances. Everyone was calling for his head, and Byrd-defenders didn’t have much ammunition.

Meanwhile, while you haven’t been paying attention—thanks to that awful start—Byrd has actually been okay since that awful start. And given the fact that the Reds haven’t had a decent left fielder since, I dunno, George Foster or something like that*, I can live with “okay.”

*Hyperbole alert!

Since May 1, Byrd is hitting…wait for it… .281/.341/.558 with 16 homers in 59 games. I know, right? Did you realize he’s been that productive?

On the season, Byrd is now up to .250/.303/.480. No, that isn’t world-class, and it’s not fair to take out the first month of the season when evaluating a player, but it is true that Byrd has been above-average at the plate this year, even including that awful start. That’s something, right? He’s posted a 112 OPS+ for the full season, and his wOBA/wRC+ are .336/113. There are years when Reds fans would have killed* for those numbers out of a Reds left fielder.

*Technically, I would not have killed anyone for those numbers. Just wanted to make that clear.

Unfortunately, Byrd has been a complete disaster in the field, one of the worst left fielders in the National League. If it weren’t for the dumpster fire named Hanley Ramirez in Boston, Byrd would be the worst regular defensive left fielder in all of baseball. It’s the worst defensive season of his long career. Thanks to the atrocious glove, Byrd has only posted 0.7 WAR, despite the generally good offensive numbers.*

*All offense, no defense. Before you say, “sounds like Adam Dunn!”, remember this: despite generally miserable defense, Dunn’s worst season as a Red saw him post 1.5 WAR.

So does Byrd deserve the flack he continues to receive from most Reds fans? Well, he can’t play defense. But if you had told most Reds fans before the season that we would get this kind of offensive production out of the club’s left fielder—combined with a brilliant defensive performance from Billy Hamilton, which helps to minimize the trouble a left fielder can cause—I venture to guess that most would have been very happy indeed.

The problem, of course, is that contract. The Reds are paying $8 million for that 0.7 WAR (though, again, the Phillies kicked in part of that amount). But what’s even scarier is that the Reds will be on the hook for another $8 million if Byrd reaches 550 plate appearances, thanks to an automatically-vesting contract option.

This is a problem, because Byrd will turn 39 next August. He’s not going to get any better, and he almost certainly won’t be worth $8 million to a team who is in the middle of a “reboot.” Will Byrd reach 550 plate appearances? Well, probably not, according to FanGraphs projections, which see him reaching 530 or so. He’s at 330 now, so Byrd would need to average 3.7 plate appearances per game the rest of the way to hit that mark. If he hadn’t gotten injured earlier this season, I’d be more than a little nervous right now. Either way, it’s still too close to call.

Then again, maybe it won’t even be a concern. What’s interesting is that there could be a repeat of 2013 this August. Will Byrd be traded before the non-waiver trade deadline to a contender? I could see it happening. He’s hitting well, and he may be attractive as a cheap option—who will likely clear waivers—to someone in need of a fourth outfielder or bench bat. Only time will tell. If he hasn’t already done it, Jocketty had better place Byrd on waivers immediately, if only to see if anyone will bite.

However it ends, Byrd probably wasn’t the right option for a team hoping to sneak in one more good season before their competitive window closed. But he hasn’t been an abject disaster. And given the state of Cincinnati’s left field since Adam Dunn departed…I’ll take it.

As long as he’s playing somewhere else next year.

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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