Marlon Byrd: Center Fielder of the Present, but for how Long?
Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry made a lot of mistakes in the free agent market. But one smart move he made was signing center fielder Marlon Byrd to a three year, $15 million contract prior to the 2010 season. According to Baseball-Reference, Byrd has been worth 4.2 WAR since joining the Cubs, and FanGraphs likes him even better at 6.4 WAR. Using the standard $5 million per one win above replacement that has been the effective rate over the last two seasons, Byrd has been an extreme bargain who has already provided somewhere between $20 million and $30 million in value to the Cubs.
But why is Byrd so valuable? He is essentially a league average hitter. But he is a league average hitter who plays average to above average defense at a premiere defensive position while being paid like a platoon corner outfielder. That is a good player to have.
The projections all think Byrd will put up a triple slash in the vicinity of .275/.325/.415, which is essentially his line from last year with a little more power. This should place him as an almost exactly league average hitter, and I have no reason to disagree with these projections.
The real question with Byrd, however, is how long will he be a Cub? Brett Jackson is the future in center fielding, and, depending on who you ask, is somewhere between the best and third best prospect in the Cubs’ system. He is a consensus Top 100 prospect, with Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein both placing him in their Top 50.
Despite many Cub fans itching to see Jackson since early last season, he could clearly benefit from more time in AAA. Players who strike out 30% of the time in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League tend to struggle mightily when they hit the Majors. Keeping Jackson in the minors until the middle of the season would also help the Cubs gain another year of Major League service time on Jackson and avoid Super 2 arbitration status, potentially saving the team millions of dollars in the long run.
Unless the Cubs surprisingly contend this season, Byrd is likely end up on the trading block midseason to open up the center field spot for Jackson and to try and get some value in return for Byrd. But what can the Cubs expect in return for the veteran center fielder? After all, when a veteran is on the market fans often seem to expect Top 10 organizational prospects in return.
Cub fans should temper expectations. While Byrd is a nice piece, he is not a star and will not bring back elite prospects. I would set baseline expectations for a return for Byrd at a package similar to the prospects the Cubs received in return for Sean Marshall. Note that I said just the prospects, so that does not include Travis Wood. But two C to C+ level prospects would be a fair return for Byrd. Just as a guideline, that level of prospect is generally either someone who is close to the Majors but with limited upside (back of the rotation starter, middle reliever, platoon player or bench player), or someone who is farther away from the Majors with real upside. If the Cubs could get more for Byrd, that would be great. But no one should expect more.
For however long Byrd stays with the Cubs, fans should enjoy watching him play. Byrd may not be a star, but he’s a full effort player who clearly loves playing the game. That does not make him more valuable, but it is fun to watch him sprint around the bases after hitting a home run.