EDITOR'S NOTE: Front-Paged. Quality stuff, I remember feeling a lot of the same about Byrd. - WC
Now, I'm not posting this to make some argument that the Phillies should look to Byrd for help this season. As badly as some of the Phils may be struggling, Byrd has indisputably been a disaster in 2012. In 48 games, he has posted a fWAR of -1.1, a wRC+ of 18, and poor defensive numbers, albeit mostly in center field. At age 34, Byrd could be facing the end of an 11-year big league career.
Boy, that was a weird paragraph to type out.
My first exposure to Mr. Byrd was in 2001, a year in which I was introduced to the joy of watching live minor league baseball, as well as the concept of "prospects." Byrd played for the AA Reading Phillies that year, hitting .316 with 28 homers and 32 stolen bases. Considered the clear top prospect in the Phillies system and a can't-miss with an impeccable work ethic, Byrd was the center of buzz. He was virtually regarded as being the next Mike Schmidt, Bobby Abreu, and Garry Maddox all rolled into one.
I saw Byrd play in about five games that season. I don't think I ever saw him hit a home run. But I did see a player with superior athletic ability and confidence at the plate. He wasn't an enormous guy, but stepping up to the plate he looked HUGE. With his build, it was hard to imagine the guy not being a significant power threat. The idea of this guy taking over for Doug Glanville in Philadelphia was an exciting one, to say the least.
Byrd's performance tailed off the following season in AAA Scranton, and he made a forgettable big league debut that year, hitting .229 in ten games. Given the struggles of Glanville in 2002, and relatively unexciting alternatives Jason Michaels and Ricky Ledee, Byrd was named the starting center fielder for 2003. He struggled early as the team's #8 hitter, but turned white-hot in the summer, with a .364 BA in June, .351 in July. He finished the season as the team's leadoff hitter, with a .303 average and minor ROY consideration. His Fangraphs WAR was 3.9 for the season.
But what happened to the power? The man who had looked like an unstoppable monster in Reading, hitting nearly 30 homers, managed only 15 at Scranton in 2002, and a mere 7 in his rookie season for the Phillies. Seven home runs? What happened?
Seeing Byrd play out his career as a slap-hitting leadoff man would have been strange enough. But after his respectable 2003 campaign, Byrd fell apart in 2004. He hit .228, was sent to the minors, and eventually ended up as a bench player for the rival Nationals in the infamous Endy Chavez trade. His career floundered until 2007, when he caught fire for the Texas Rangers' AAA team, earning a callup and 454 plate appearances with the Rangers. Byrd's time with the Rangers played out much like his 2003 in Philadelphia, with a batting average in the .290 range and respectable OBP, but the power and speed he showed in Reading once again eluded him. He did hit 20 home runs in 2009, but this would remain a career high for Byrd, and his overall 2009 season was roughly average. Byrd's time in Texas was a nice renaissance for his career, considering that his hot-prospect days were long behind him. According to Fangraphs, Byrd was a 2-3 WAR player with Texas.
Byrd would earn an All-Star selection in 2010, his first year with the Cubs, thanks to a hot start. He was worth 4.4 WAR according to Fangraphs, though this was largely influenced by being an unusually strong defensive year for Byrd, possibly more of a statistical anomaly. His offensive numbers with Chicago were average, that is, until 2012.
Byrd's career fWAR is 16.2. He's played 1103 MLB games, and has 1067 MLB hits. His career averages are middle-of-the-road, and he has tallied only 82 homers and 49 steals. He's had a fine career, not a flashy one, and most of it not in Philadelphia. It's bittersweet, and at the same time I don't feel especially interested in seeing him wear Phillies red again. He's a bench player at this point in his career, and seeing him come back would feel pretty awkward, like meeting up with that old high school friend who you've drifted far apart from.
I'm still not really sure how to feel about his career. It was sad seeing him flame out so quickly in Philly. But I'm certainly glad his career didn't finish out as the fifth outfielder for the Nats. I was happy to see him do well in Texas, and early on in Chicago, but even then he was just never able to get to the next level. But hey, he's had a reasonable big league career. Unexciting, but fairly productive.
In closing, those of you who were hoping for this to be an allegory to Domonic Brown's saga in 2012, you shall remain disappointed. I'm just reflecting. Hopefully he catches on somewhere, does well, hangs around for several years, and doesn't hurt the Phillies in the process. That's about all I can ask for.