Amaro struck quickly to reel in Byrd

Free-agent outfielder Marlon Byrd, coming off a career year, gives the Phillies a righthanded bat they desperately need. AL BEHRMAN / Associated Press
Free-agent outfielder Marlon Byrd, coming off a career year, gives the Phillies a righthanded bat they desperately need. AL BEHRMAN / Associated Press
Posted: November 15, 2013

ORLANDO - There was no sense, Ruben Amaro Jr. said, in waiting to see how the free-agent market developed. His scouts identified Marlon Byrd as a high-priority target, and a match was made with $16 million. The Phillies general manager struck, as he often does, early in the offseason.

The annual expectation is for Amaro to make a blockbuster acquisition, but he speaks in more conservative tones this winter. The Phillies still seek a catcher, and a reunion with Carlos Ruiz remains likely. After that, Amaro could turn his attention to pitching and leave an offense that scored its fewest runs per game in 25 years to improve from within.

"At some point we have to have faith that [Ryan] Howard and [Ben] Revere are going to come back and play and be effective," Amaro said. "We have to let the players play."

The current problem is finding where the Phillies can further upgrade - if they even choose to do so. Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins are locked into place. Byrd will assume right field. Ruiz, or another free agent with weaker offensive numbers, will catch. Third base will be occupied by either Cody Asche or Maikel Franco, two promising young talents.

The Phillies are willing to listen to trade offers for Revere and Domonic Brown, although both players are cheap and under team control for years to come. A ludicrous local rumor involving Brown was unfounded. With power being bought at a premium, 29 teams in Major League Baseball would be interested in a 26-year-old outfielder who hit 27 home runs last season. That is why the Phillies must be overwhelmed to deal him.

"Everyone is looking for the same thing, and that's young, controllable players," Amaro said. "So there is no reason for us to be moving any of them."

Amaro insisted he is searching for further outfield depth, and is not a player for the bigger bats available. He stressed "flexibility" and "best bang for the buck."

There was some criticism among executives at the general managers meetings who questioned the Phillies' aggressive move for Byrd, a midlevel talent, when prices on the market could stabilize with more time.

"The need for power and the need for middle-of-the-lineup bats is in great demand, and there aren't many out there," agent Scott Boras said. "That's just a sign of a player who, really after being out of the league as a starting player, had four or five weeks of success, what it means to value him."

Byrd produced a .959 OPS against lefthanders in 2013. That ranked eighth among major-league hitters with at least 150 plate appearances vs. lefties. (Just ahead of Byrd was Hunter Pence, who signed a five-year, $90 million contract with San Francisco.)

Byrd was a different type of hitter in 2013. He hit the ball on the ground just 39.2 percent of the time, according to batted-ball data from FanGraphs.com. It was his lowest percentage since 2005. More of his contact was in the air, a trend that bodes well for playing at Citizens Bank Park.

The adjustment came while he worked last winter with Doug Latta at a suburban Los Angeles baseball facility called the Ballyard.

"When I say it out loud, it sounds kind of silly," Byrd said by phone. "My whole career, I've been taught to hit the top of the ball. When I started breaking down the swing, I realized when you hit the top of the ball, the ball goes down and it's a ground ball. If you can stay through the middle of the ball, you can get the ball in the air. That's what we worked on to try to drive the ball for more power."

It worked, and that is part of why Amaro does not believe 2013 was an aberration.

"We talked to our scouts about how his swing path and approach changed," Amaro said. "He's worked on it. I have to trust my scouts on it."

Amaro said he was unconcerned with Byrd's previous use of a performance-enhancing drug or a domestic-abuse incident from 2002.

"This guy is a good character guy," Amaro said. If Byrd fails another drug test, he will be suspended 100 games without pay.

"I can't change that," Byrd said. "The questions will probably continue until the end of my career."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb www.inquirer.com/

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