The wisdom of the Phillies' reported decision to sign Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract revolves heavily around one question.
Do you believe Marlon Byrd?
Do you believe him when he swears he has never used performance enhancing drugs? Do you believe him when he says his use of the banned drug Tamoxifen, which resulted in a 50-game suspension in 2012, wasn't to combat the side effects of steroids but to combat a condition called gynecomastia, caused by his loss of 35 pounds during the winter of 2011? Do you believe that said loss of weight innocently happened to occur after he signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Cubs, nearly doubling his total career earnings up to that point? And do you believe that, after three consecutive seasons of declining power -- a .479 slugging percentage in 2009 followed by .429 in 2010 followed by .395 in 2011 followed by .245 in 2012 -- and after the expiration of that aforementioned contract, Byrd turned himself into an outfielder who hit 24 home runs with an .847 OPS without any illicit help? Do you believe that he turned a $700,000 contract with the Mets into a $16 million contract with the Phillies because he revamped his swing, started hitting more fly balls, and started seeing more of those fly balls leave the park?
"I understand why people are skeptical," Byrd told USA Today in September.
Sure, we can tiptoe around the issue, offer up a variety of ancillary reasons why the contract is a risk, point to his age (36), to his inflated BABIP (.353 over a career mark of .325), to his lefty/righty splits (.959 OPS against lefties, .797 against righties), and then casually mentioned that, oh by the way, Byrd has an acknowledged relationship with infamous BALCO founder Victor Conte and is represented by a pair of agents whose former employee was involved with a number of players suspended in the Biogensis scandal and just happened to have the most dominant season of his career after most major league general managers had left that career for dead.
But let's be honest. There is no elephant in the room. Byrd is the elephant. And provided he passes his physical, he will become a handsomely paid elephant, one that is charged with reviving an outfield that spent much of last season as one of the worst in the majors.
Yes, you can argue against the contract strictly on the basis of his age. Lance Berkman was 35 years old in 2011 when he hit .301/.412/.547 with 31 home runs for the Cardinals. Since then, he has managed just 391 plate appearances with a .730 OPS. Magglio Ordonez hit .310/.376/.428 in 131 games for the Tigers at the age of 35, then managed just 84 games in 2010 and 92 in 2011 before calling it a career. Vladimir Guerrero (.841 OPS at 35, .733 at 36, done at 37). Johnny Damon (.854 and 24 home runs at 35, .756 and nine at 36). But the list of players who have continued bashing beyond the age of 35 is long. Since 2008, 24 players age 36 or older have finished a season with at least 20 home runs. Raul Ibanez was 37 in his first season with the Phillies (.899 OPS and 34 home runs). Aflonso Soriano was 37 last year when he hit 34 for the Yankees and Cubs (with a .791 OPS). Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Jorge Posada, Jim Edmonds, Paul Konerko.
But the most relevant comparable is probably Carlos Beltran, who last year hit 24 home runs with an .830 OPS at the age of 36. Byrd was every bit Beltran's equal last year. In fact, their numbers are nearly identical. Beltran's track record is much longer, but Byrd's production did not come out of nowhere: from 2007-10, he averaged 132 games, 13 home runs and an .807 OPS for the Rangers. Plus, Beltran is older, and, arguably, a riskier health proposition given his knees.
The truth of the matter is that any player that the Phillies were going to sign was going to carry a significant amount of risk. That's what happens when a team commits 25 percent of its payroll to three players at non-premium positions (first base, closer, set-up man). Nelson Cruz carries risks similar to Byrd. Mike Morse, always a health risk, has spent two seasons in decline. Corey Hart sat out all of last year. The Phillies needed right-handed power, and they paid as small a price as could be expected for the psychological assurance -- illusory or not -- that a player coming off a strong campaign provides. We'll break this signing down much further in the coming days (provided it is officially consumated). What it really boils down to is that it was always going to take an improbable confluence of circumstances for the Phillies to contend next year, and that they were always going to have to settle for a certain amount of risk in right field.
Whether they paid for the right risk could very well depend on whether you believe Marlon Byrd. This is an algorithm a team must run on every player, regardless of his history. What is the probability his numbers have been inflated by illicit drugs? If they have been, what is the probability he will continue using those drugs? If he stops using them, what is the probability his skills will fall off a cliff? If he does not stop using, what is the probability that he will get caught? The majority of the Biogenesis gang never tested positive. If he is using drugs, what are the odds his supplier keeps sloppy records and will crumble under prosecutorial pressure? If a player is not using drugs, what are the odds he will start? In either case, what are the odds that his body will hold up with another year, another two years of age?
The widom of this signing depends largely on your algorithm.