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Byrd Flu: True to Form, Chicago Cubs Overpay for Free Agent Outfielder

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IJanuary 1, 2010

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 06:  Right fielder Marlon Byrd #22 of the Texas Rangers during the home opener on April 6, 2009 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Throughout history, birds have been symbols.

In the Bible story of Noah and the ark, a dove heralds the first sighting of dry land after the long flood. Even before Edgar Allen Poe forever linked the raven to all things macabre, it stood as a foreboding sign. Eagles represent freedom, doves symbolize peace, hawks typify tenacity, and cranes embody grace.

Unfortunately, a Byrd of a different feather is soon to fly into Chicago's Wrigley Field. Erstwhile Texas Rangers center fielder Marlon Byrd agreed Thursday to a three-year, $15 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. He will fill the team's center field void, created when it traded outfielder Milton Bradley and pledged to move 2008 right fielder Kosuke Fukudome back to that position in 2010.

Byrd is a respectable player. At age 31, he got his first chance in over a half-decade to start full-time in 2009, and rewarded the Rangers with a career-high 20 home runs. According to his hit tracker data , those home runs roughly matched expected results.

Byrd might well repeat that total next season. Wrigley Field ranked only one spot lower than Ameriquest Field in Texas for home run proclivity. He will be challenged, however, to equal the 133-point differential in his home and away OPS last season.

Meanwhile, Byrd is within a breath of average in his sum contributions, both as a hitter and in the field. Last season, he posted a Revised Zone Rating just .005 below the major-league average when he played center field. That number means he was worth less than a run less as a defensive center fielder than an average glove-man.

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Meanwhile, his OPS was six percent better than the league average (a significant but not special figure). His career OPS is a more telling one percent below average. 2009 was, in some ways at least, a career year for Byrd.

Thus, Byrd certainly won't hurt Chicago next season. He even adds useful dimensions to the team, by facilitating the move of Fukudome back to a defensive spot where he is substantially better than in center. Byrd also can, and likely will, hit fifth, a spot in the order for which Chicago had no particular plan before the signing.

Here is the problem, though. As Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers writes, Byrd is "a stop-gap center fielder on a stop-gap team." On that premise, Rogers and I whole-heartedly agree. From that point, however, Rogers draws a fairly absurd conclusion: his piece supports the signing.

Byrd is a stop-gap, it's true. But Hendry is not compensating him as such. For one thing, no team (outside perhaps Kansas City) has need of a three-year stop-gap. For another, Byrd will make over 40 percent of the money involved in this deal, $6.5 million, in 2012. By that time, he will be 35.

Chicago will need to shift him to right field to maintain defensive decency, which will make his declining offensive skills even less valuable. Worst of all, he could be a second jam (opposite Alfonso Soriano) in front of a talented crop of young Chicago outfielders.

That group already includes 21-year-old Kyler Burke , top 2009 pick Brett Jackson (also 21), and 24-year-old James Adduci . All three will be ready by 2012, though admittedly, Adduci is a role player at best in the Major Leagues, in the mold of Sam Fuld.

That Chicago will be paying Byrd such an exorbitant cost to impede the progress of its system's top prospects is a sad but predictable reflection of its recent choices. Repeatedly, Hendry has bent to the whim of ownership by bringing aboard big-name (or best available) free agents so the team has something to market each new year.

Even more consistently, he has acted on shortsighted notions about the immediate need to win a World Series. He continues to pay players like Jason Marquis, Bob Howry, Scott Eyre, Kosuke Fukudome, John Grabow, Milton Bradley, Aaron Miles, and Byrd second-tier money for third-rate performance records. All of this is done in the hopes of keeping Chicago competitive (read: tolerable) in the short run. Instead, Hendry would do well to look at options that allow creative destruction and natural rebuilding to occur.

Instead, this signing, along with Grabow's, demonstrates the new family ownership under which Hendry works is a simple reprise of Pete Townshend's old lament, "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss." The Rickettses clearly exert the same profit-motive pressure on Hendry as did their corporate predecessors.

More to the point (and more on theme), Chicago has missed yet another crucial lesson they ought to have learned from Byrds, "To everything, there is a season." 2010 should have been a season in which to save some money and regroup. Instead, Hendry will take yet another shot at the big prize. One can only hope this bullet hits its mark, because the Cubs have missed their chance to reload.

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