Pat Burrell comes with the higher pedigree, one of the best college players ever, a Golden Spikes award winner as the nation's best amateur player and the number one overall pick in the 1998 draft. A stellar season in 2002 (.282, 37 HR, 118 RBI) seemed to mark Burrell's emergence as a legitimate MVP candidate for a decade to come. The Phillies, anxious not to lose out on Burrell's awesome power potential, signed him to a six-year, $50 million contract. Most observers praised the move. Since then, Burrell has looked like a shell of the player he was in 2002. Because Burrell's contract includes a no-trade clause, the Phillies have stood by him through his darkest days. GM Ed Wade has not made getting a left-fielder a priority, nor has anyone been given a chance to take his job. For better or worse, the Phillies have decided to live or die with Pat Burrell as a starter.
Marlon Byrd, a tenth round pick making less than a tenth of Burrell's pay, has not benefited from the same unremitting patience afforded to Burrell. The Phillies made no effort this off-season to hide the fact that Byrd was no longer part of their plans. GM Ed Wade made finding a new centerfielder a top priority, signing Kenny Lofton and handing him the centerfielder job. More, Wade openly tried to trade Byrd to San Francisco and Milwaukee.
After a dismal start to 2003, voices everywhere rang out calling for Marlon Byrd's demotion to the minors. Instead, in late May, Larry Bowa moved him to the leadoff spot, where Byrd miraculously turned his season around on a dime and became a lethal weapon in the Phillies arsenal. Byrd was the picture of consistency the rest of the way, boasting a 15-game hitting streak, longest on the team. A breakout star, Byrd seemed unstoppable.
Unfortunately, Byrd's fall in 2004 was as dramatic as his rise in 2003. By his own admission, Byrd swung like "a little girl", generating almost no power and striking out with alarming regularity. He became an automatic out, looking as overmatched as any hitter in the league. Eventually, the Phillies gave up on Byrd, replacing him with perennial back-up Jason Michaels.
Enigmatic, Marlon Byrd defies definition. Just who is he? Is he the future all-star who tore up National League pitching in the second half of 2003, batting a gaudy .325 after June 1st? Or is he the flailing failure of 2004, the picture of futility, batting a punchless .228, his on-base percentage a paltry .283? Does he have an evil twin? Was he abducted by mojo-stealing aliens? How do you project his performance going forward?
No one questions Byrd's physical gifts. He is both fast and strong, a pure athlete who was All-State in both football and baseball as a Georgia high-schooler. One may suspect that his prolonged funk was the result of a fragile psyche, but Byrd is no stranger to battling back from adversity. A severe injury in college nearly cost him his right leg. Many thought his sporting days were over. Yet after three operations and a long rehab, Byrd fought back and resurrected his career, a sure sign of high character. When Byrd was demoted last year, he took it well, vowing to come back strong. Instead of stewing in resentment over the off-season, Byrd went back to work on his swing, tutoring at the Bucky Dent hitting school. Always known as an especially hard worker, Byrd's efforts clearly have paid off. This spring, Byrd looks every bit as potent as he did hitting leadoff in 2003.
Until he banged up his ring finger against the Tribe on Sunday.
So now what?
Marlon Byrd has done everything the Phillies have asked of him. His work habits are exemplary, his attitude positive. A dislocated ring finger isn't career threatening. Repeatedly given up for dead, Byrd has worked his way back to the top of his game from much worse. It is critical that the Phillies make the right decision on Byrd, who is still just 27 years old and likely has his best days ahead of him. Recently, GM Ed Wade commented that Byrd was playing his way back into the Phillies plans, but just how and where Byrd will contribute remains a mystery. It is unlikely that the Phillies would receive fair value in any trade, since the emphasis would be placed on his abysmal regular season last year as opposed to his strong spring this year. Any talk of sending him to AAA in favor of Shane Victorino should be squashed immediately, as should any discussion of keeping Michaels ahead of Byrd on the depth chart.
Without a doubt, Kenny Lofton was brought here to be the Phillies starting centerfielder. Yet Byrd, once healed, should be given an opportunity to start against left-handed pitchers and fill in for Lofton in day-after-night games. Since 2002, Lofton, a lefty, has hit nearly thirty points higher against righties than lefties (.285 vs. .252). Because most of the pitchers in the league are right-handed--nearly a 4 to 1 ratio--Lofton would still get the lion's share of playing time. But if Byrd takes his potent spring training swing into the regular season, he should play more as his performance merits. Should Lofton or Burrell falter, Marlon Byrd could take flight and help win a ring for that ring finger.
Condolences to coach Milt Thompson and his family after the passing of his mother.