Byrd and the Philadelphia Phillies agreed Tuesday to a $16 million, two-year contract, a deal that comes less than a year after the former Sprayberry High School star was playing in Mexico’s winter league.
The 36-year-old outfielder hit a career-high 24 homers last season for the New York Mets and Pittsburgh, which acquired him on Aug. 27. He batted .364 with one homer and five RBIs in six playoff games after hitting .291 during the season with 88 RBIs, one short of his career best.
“Marlon adds a significant upgrade both offensively and defensively to our outfield,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a statement. “He has been particularly productive against left-handed pitching which was a serious challenge for us this past season.”
Byrd was drafted by the Phillies and began his big league career in Philadelphia. His agreement calls for $8 million in each of the next two seasons and includes an $8 million team option for 2016. The option would become guaranteed if he has 1,100 at-bats in the next two seasons, including at least 550 in 2015, or 600 at-bats in 2015.
“If you don’t want to give up your first-round pick, Marlon Byrd is arguably the best available outfield bat,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We feared he was out of our price range immediately. We stayed engaged in the process, and Marlon and his agents talked about wanting to come back to Pittsburgh. He loved his time there. The environment and playing for a winner and playing in front of that fan base was something that really intrigued him.”
A career .280 hitter with 106 homers and 533 RBIs, Byrd was released by Boston in June 2012, then given a 50-game suspension 11 days later following a positive test for Tamoxifen, which can reduce side effects of steroid use and increase testosterone. At the time, Byrd said he mistakenly used the medication for a recurrence of a condition that earlier required surgery. He says he did not use it for performance enhancement.
He played winter ball for the Tomateros de Culiacan (Culiacan Tomato Growers) and signed a minor league contract with the Mets on Feb. 1. He wound up on their big league roster for a base salary of $700,000 and earned another $100,000 in performance bonuses based on plate appearances.
Both the dollars and the years offered by the Phillies were at a level the Pirates were unprepared to match.
“The timing really bit us, and Ruben did a great job of going out and getting his guy early — what we did with Russ Martin a year ago,” Huntington said. “We weren’t in a position to be able to move this quickly.”
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said the deal was an indication of inflation in free-agent prices.
“Had you asked me the question three or four months ago, I might have been surprised, but not in the light of what’s happened since the end of the season,” he said. “There haven’t been that many signings, but this one is consistent with the others.”
Philadelphia had sought a right-handed hitting outfielder with power since Jayson Werth left for Washington following the 2010 season. Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr. and Delmon Young weren’t solutions; Hunter Pence was acquired in July 2011 and traded a year later.
Darin Ruf hit 14 homers in 251 at-bats last season while starting 27 games in right field, 15 in left and 28 at first base. But Ruf, a converted first baseman, is hardly the defensive player Byrd is and is viewed as a role player.
Philadelphia’s outfielders hit .259 with 57 homers and a .407 slugging percentage this year. Byrd could be a major upgrade.
“He is an experienced middle-of-the-order hitter who creates some balance to our lineup,” Amaro said. “With his talent and clubhouse presence, we believe Marlon will be a solid addition to our club as we address our needs and plan to contend in 2014 and beyond.”
Byrd was once a prized prospect in the Phillies’ minor league system. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2003 after hitting .303, but struggled the next two seasons and was traded to Washington.
Byrd has also played for Texas, the Chicago Cubs and Boston in a 12-year career with seven teams. He was an NL All-Star with the Cubs in 2010 and his best season before last year came with the Rangers in 2009 when he batted .283 with 20 homers and 89 RBIs.