Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sterling Marlon?

Sorry for the pun---well, it was Race Week here, after all

By now we're all familiar with the trade. But just in case we're not, I've prepared a futuristic graphic that enhances the ramifications of this momentous transaction. Ready? Okay . . .

---> To the Nats: Marlon Byrd.
---> To the Phils: Endy Chavez.

Mind-blowin', ain't it?

Anyway, this is what baseball fans would call a Challenge Trade: I'm giving you my centerfielder for your centerfielder, and we'll just see who's the last man standing.

---Of course, "momentous" probably exaggerates. As Tom, the Balls, Sticks & Stuff guy, puts it:

Chances are, in five years this trade will be meaningless for both teams,

---Chances are, Tom. Then again, I elegantly chopped off Tom's "but" clause that follows:

but I can't help but wonder if Marlon Byrd's excellent spring training just might have been a prelude of things to come for him.

A "prelude of things to come" for Marlon. I like it. Needless to say, as Tom notes, Chris Needham can more than fill in what would be Endy's "prelude of things to come."

But this is a Nats blog, and Marlon Byrd is now a Nat. And you know what? I don't know that much about him.

Oh sure, I know he was the Phils No. 1 prospect a couple of seasons ago, and he had a pretty nice rookie year, and he had a pretty putrid sophomore slump, and he accordingly played himself into the doghouse. I know all that. But I don't know much more.

So, let's play "Marlon Byrd: This is Your Professional Baseball Career," shall we?

---> 1999: Drafted in the 10th round of the amateur draft, a 21 year-old (DOB: August 30, 1997) Byrd is assigned to Low-A Batavia. In 243 at-bats (about 270-75 plate appearances), Byrd hits .296/.376/.535, with 13 homers, 50 runs batted in, and 8 steals in 10 attempts. Needless to say, Byrd makes the New York-Penn League all-star team. The only blight on his record is a 70/28 strikeout-to-walk ratio; that's a good deal of strikeouts in 243 ABs, of course.

---> 2000: Assigned to High-A Piedmont, Byrd does pretty much the same thing, hitting .309/.379/.515 (17 homers and 93 RBIs, as well) in 515 ABs. He improves his strikeout rate somewhat (110 whiffs in those 515 ABs)and adds the stolen base (41 in 46 attempts) to his arsenal. As you can see, Byrd must be pretty fast, as he also legged out 13 triples. Byrd made the Sally League all-star team, as well as Baseball America's Class-A all-star team. Not bad; I guess age 22 (23 at the end of the season) might be a bit old for a top prospect in High-A, but not tremendously.

---> 2001: At Double-A Reading, Byrd again does pretty much the same thing, batting .316/.386/.555 in 538 ABs. (Strangely, his "Isolated Patience" has been exactly the same---.70----every year in his career up to this point.) The doubles and triples turn into homers, as he jacks 28 balls out of the yard, pretty impressive in the Eastern League, which is traditionally a pitcher's league. The speed remains, and he against improves his K/BB ratio, as well as his K rate. Byrd wins more postseason awards than you can shake a stick at, shall we say, and actually pulls off a "mini-Ichiro!"; he takes both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the Eastern League.

At this point, it was pretty apparent that Byrd would have a major league career. As I recall, Sports Illustrated's pre-season 2002 sentiment was pretty typical:

Doug Glanville is adequate. There's nobody there to push him. Marlon Byrd is a kid with great upside. He doesn't belong in the big leagues yet, but if he gets it done in Triple A and if Glanville falls on his face, he could be the guy. He could be a star in the immediate future. ...

Indeed, Byrd was Baseball America's choice for top Phils' prospect to start the 2002

---> 2002: Assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Byrd didn't flame out, certainly, but he wasn't quite the thoroughbread, either. For the season, he hit .297/.362/.476 (missing his accustomed "Isolated Patience" figure by five points), with 15 homers, 63 ribbies, and 15 steals. Don't let the slighter raw totals fool you; it was a full season, but he just wasn't quite as productive. Nevertheless, he racked out 37 doubles, and his K/BB ratio didn't deteriorate. Byrd still made the International League all-star team, for crying out loud. He got a quick cup-o-coffee with the Phils and was more or less handed the center field job.

After the season, John Sickels sized up Byrd for the Four Letter Website accordingly:

Statistically, Byrd has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. His production at Triple-A was slightly less impressive than it was in Double-A, as he was too power-conscious at times. But overall it was a good year. He projects as a .270-.280 hitter at the major league level, with 15 homers and 15 steals in a full year. Those are short-term projections; in the long run he should exceed those production levels. [. . . ]

Byrd has excelled at every level in pro ball, and there's no reason to think he'll have problems in the major leagues. Still, he is streaky at times, and a slow start cannot be ruled out. If the Phillies are patient with him, they will be rewarded with double-digit home run and stolen base production, plus a decent batting average and on-base percentage. I think he'll post slightly above-average numbers in 2003, say .278 with 14 homers and 16 steals, then really put things together in 2004 and beyond. It's a conservative estimate, and in the long run I am very optimistic about Byrd's career.

Other notations by Sickels:

* Stocky but strong, like Kirby Puckett.
* Excellent work ethic.
* Maybe too focused on hitting for power at times.
* Reputation for emotional majority, though he was arrested after an incident with his girlfriend (charges dropped).
* No previous health problems.

Gavin Floyd eclipsed Byrd as the Phils' top prospect accoding to BA, though there's no dishonor in that.

---> 2003: Byrd is the starting centerfielder for the Phillies, and he handles the job pretty well overall, batting .303/.366/.418. He hits only 7 homers and steals only 11 bases.

Going into 2004, some publications, like Sports Illustrated here, seemed rather vaguely disappointed by Byrd's rookie season, but others, like Baseball Prospectus 2004, evaluated him pretty positively:

Byrd was touted as a Rookie of the Year prospect coming into 2003, and if you could pretend his April and May didn't happen, he might have won it. He got off to a miserable start, spent some time on the DL, and dropped into a platoon role with Ricky Ledee. His season turned
around after he reviewed tapes of himself the prior season (note to hitters: always, always get tapes of yourself when things are going well). He tweaked his stance, hit .325 with a .381 OBP after June 1, and took the leadoff spot away from Jimmy Rollins in July. If Byrd can keep progressing, he'll be a huge asset: You can count the number of center fielders who can hit and field on one hand, maybe a hand and a couple of fingers.

I wonder how a guy can wind up on the DL and be the righty half of a platoon and still wind up with about 550 PAs. Anyway . . .

---> 2004: Splat. Byrd hits .228/.287/.321 in Philly, then hits a lukewarm .263/.323/.388 after being plunked back to Triple-A. That's not so good, you know.

Mike from Mike's Baseball Rants largely blamed the Phillies' management for Byrd's rough season, though:

Last year, Byrd along with most of the Phillies' offense struggled early, but Byrd was singled out as the scapegoat. First, the superannuated Doug Glanville was brought back and somehow made the team on the last cut as the sixth outfielder. On April 18, Glanville won an extra-inning game for the Phils with a walk-off homer, and that was the beginning of the end for Byrd. Larry Bowa yo-yoed Byrd up and down and in and out of the lineup. And after he continued to slump—surprise!—was optioned to the minors by the end of June. After an undistinguished month in Triple-A, Byrd was reinstated as the Phils starting center fielder, and he finished up the year like the shock therapy patient that he had become.

Among the mainstream press, the typically cheery Bill Conlin placed a lot of the blame for the 2004 season on Byrd---or at least GM Ed Wade's (post hoc, ergo propter hoc?) inability to see that Byrd couldn't get the job done:

April 2004, new stadium, good-on-paper team. Underachieve, but still in the race. Two games out of first place on June 9; sign Paul Abbott. Trade away Ricky Ledee, the best centerfield option at the time. Mess up a trade for Kenny Lofton. Not get a centerfielder or an impact player by the trade deadline, even though you know you have holes. Recall Marlon Byrd. Totally fall out of the race. Miss the playoffs. Fire Bowa. Hire Manuel.

---> 2005: Byrd started the year as a significant question mark. As Ken Mandel,'s Philly version of our Rocket Bill Ladson, noted, the Phils brought in Kenny Lofton to take up space in center:

"We're very happy to have Kenny Lofton with us," general manager Ed Wade said on the day Lofton was acquired, and that feeling hasn't changed. "To be able to get a legitimate quality center fielder is a big step forward for us. [Jason] Michaels did a very good job for us, but, at this point, we believe Kenny is our center fielder and will be a catalyst for our club." Internal discussions regarding Lofton began before the 2004 season, and an attempt was made to acquire him at the trading deadline. When Marlon Byrd's sophomore slump
lasted the season, Philadelphia identified the position a priority.

A few days later, Mandel discussed Byrd in a mailbag session:

Byrd was almost traded during the Winter Meetings, but a deal with the Brewers fell through at the last minute. A disappointing sophomore slump caused him to fall out of favor, and Michaels has passed him on the depth chart. If Byrd's still with the organization next season, it will be as the starting center fielder for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. If there's a team out there willing to take a chance on him, they'll be acquiring a player who hustles every second and
may turn things around. At 27, there's still time for him to blossom.

And, true enough, Byrd appeared to turn it around during spring training, at least until a broken right ring finger sidelined him:

First things first, and that's healing from the broken finger that will cost him at least the next two weeks. When he was injured on March 20, X-rays showed no fracture, so no MRI was performed. Byrd worked his way back into shape, and played a few games in Florida.
"After the third game, I came in the next morning and it was swollen," Byrd said. "I was going to take a couple of days off. By the time I got to Scranton, it was worse. I'm glad I know now [what it is]. At the same time, it got to the point where I couldn't play through it." Byrd's goal is to return so he can continue the progress he made in Spring Training, when he was one of the Phillies' best players. If he does, he figures he'll find his way back to the Majors -- somewhere. "I did enough whining and frowning last year, and it's not me," Byrd said. "I had a confused face last year because I had no clue what I was doing or how to fix it. Now I just want to get back and play."

Maybe he should have watched more videotape?

Anyway, Byrd is a Nat now, so where do we go from here?

Well, there's probably three threshold questions that must be addressed:

1) Is Marlon Byrd worth Endy Chavez? No, seriously . . .
2) If Byrd is so talented, why: (a) did he tank so much last year, and (b) was he worth only Endy Chavez?
3) What should Byrd's role be?

1) Marlon-for-Endy?

Hey, I just noticed that Ryan "G-Force" Moore has chimed in! Ryan essentially stands by a statement he made back in November (I didn't know this was a proposed trade back then---heck, outside of Ryan, I didn't even know of other Nats' bloggers back then):

As far as I can tell, Byrd and Chavez are actually the same person, so that won't make much of a difference. I guess I'd rather have the guy who managed 44 walks in a season, though.

I won't take this too far, because Ryan's not really saying this and he's a pretty versatile ass-kicker, anyway---but I recall seeing a post on Baseball Primer that compares Endy's and Marlon's career batting totals. To wit, entering this season, they are:

---> Marlon: .271/.331/.378
---> Endy: .264/.303/.365

Byrd's on top, but that's fairly close, no? When you consider that Endy's probably the better fielder,* then maybe Chavez is a comparable player. Maybe this isn't simply a matter of an Endy-dump.

Well, I don't know. Byrd's craptastic batting line is pretty heavily influenced by his completely impotent offensive season last year---which was completely out of character for him, based on his previous seasons in pro ball. (By comparison, Endy's minor league numbers can be found here. Outside of 2002 at Ottawa, Chavez did nothing of note above A-ball.)

So, sure, Byrd's probably not going to be a stud hitter. At the same time, I don't see how one horrible season necessarily negates the skills he established pre-2004. He can hit. Unless Endy holds a tremendously sizable advantage in defense and baserunning, then---talent-for-talent---the Nats are making out like bandits.

2) Quite simply, a) no clue---maybe he wasn't studying the videotape? and b) also, no clue. This one worries me. Maybe it's his attitude, although the Phils' beat writer seems to like him. Maybe Byrd's bat truly has slowed. Or maybe it's as simple as Bowa and now Manuel preferring veteran center fielders.

3) Essentially, J.J. Davis with talent. Hopefully, Byrd's arrival will spell the end of Jeffrey Hammonds. As Ryan notes, that's a good thing---as long as it doesn't take away from Ryan Church's PT.

So, what am I saying? I guess I'm saying that I like the trade. Isn't that what I said last night? Sure. Didn't I say it in fewer words last night? Sure. What have I added tonight? Uh . . . lots of links and excerpted copy?

* For instance, their Defensive Win Shares from last season can be found on this site:

This is a good evaluation -- and "JJ Davis with talent" isn't such a bad thing to have. Especially if the JJDwT is lacking the bizarro superpower that turns singles into triples.
True. Now we just have to rid ourselves of that other Pillar of Evil, J. Hammonds!
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