Phillies are looking to win now, not rebuild
Signing of free-agent outfielder Byrd, 36, shows club not going for youth movement
Marlon Byrd reinvented himself. The Philadelphia Phillies are hoping he will help them do the same thing -- without a trip to Mexico and a long time staring into the abyss.
One of baseball's best lineups during a run of five consecutive playoff seasons, including the World Series championship season in 2008, the Phillies have looked to win low-scoring games in recent seasons, and that formula produced only 73 victories this past season -- the franchise's fewest since '00.
From 2005-10, Philadelphia either led the National League in scoring or was second. But little by little, the lineup lost thump. Guys like Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand and Raul Ibanez left, and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins got a little older.
When Ryan Howard blew out his Achilles tendon making the final out in an NL Division Series loss in 2011, an era ended, whether the team's front office wanted to admit it or not.
Holdovers like Rollins and Utley must find their form from the 2007 season, when the Phils averaged 5.5 runs per game. The Phillies have seen their scoring totals drop four years in a row, from 4.8 in '10 to 4.4 in '11, 4.2 in '12 and 3.8 in '13, when they outscored only the Cubs and Marlins in the NL.
Senior vice president and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., meanwhile, amassed and hoarded a collection of elite starting pitchers who annually required more and more of the organization's resources.
When the Phillies won the second of their back-to-back NL pennants in 2009, their three highest-paid starting pitchers (Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton ) took up 21.3 percent of the Opening Day payroll. But it was Cliff Lee, acquired in midseason, who was the playoff ace.
When the Phils had a chance to trade for Roy Halladay that winter, they did. Lee was subsequently dealt to Seattle, but he returned as a free agent a year later. And Cole Hamels, who at age 24 had worked 35 masterful innings in the 2008 playoffs, became a workhorse requiring a similar payroll commitment.
In 2013, Halladay, Lee and Hamels earned a combined $65.5 million, which represented 40.9 percent of the $160 million payroll. Combine that with the commitments to Howard, Utley and Rollins, and the front office has left itself precious little wiggle room for constructing the rest of the roster.
The situation screams for good young players, and the Phillies' farm system hasn't been able to provide answers. Left fielder Domonic Brown, who looked like the next big thing when he got to Philadelphia as a 22-year-old in 2010, had stalled before showing serious power during some stretches of last season.
Through it all, president and CEO David Montgomery has remained consistent in providing resources and reinforcing the commitment to produce a contender. Had ownership not kept the pedal to the metal, Amaro might have traded Hamels at midseason in 2012 rather than extend his contract.
Even after finishing 23 games behind Atlanta last season in an NL East division that also includes a Nationals team that looks to be built to last as a contender, and with a first-year manager in Ryne Sandberg, the mandate remains to maximize each season, not take a step back. That's why it remains possible that the Phils will re-sign the 36-year-old Halladay, who has had his last two seasons ruined by a career-threatening shoulder injury, and why Amaro so quickly committed $16 million over two years to Byrd, another 36-year-old.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was effusive in his praise of Byrd, saying the outfielder threw "aces all over the table'' after being traded to Pittsburgh on Aug. 27. In 30 regular-season games as the Bucs' right fielder, Byrd hit .318 with an .843 OPS and became something of a leader by example.
"Clubhouse demeanor, the game edge, the quality at-bats, the ability to defend in right field, modeling the behavior you're looking to see late in the season at the plate in the batter's box -- young players get to see it,'' Hurdle said. [Byrd] has layers of mental toughness, physical toughness, mental discipline. He plays with an edge. He is the culmination of a lot of years of experience in the Major Leagues, a lot of ups, a lot of downs.''
Byrd was discarded by the Cubs and Red Sox in 2012, when he was also hit with a 50-game suspension for violating MLB's performance-enhancing drugs policy. He easily could have called it a career but instead spent last winter in Mexico working on his hitting. Byrd landed a Spring Training invitation from the Mets and easily won a roster spot. He hit .285 with an .848 OPS in 117 games for them before the trade.
The Phillies' right fielders ranked 13th in the NL with a combined .709 OPS last season -- fatal numbers for the lineup given that center fielder Ben Revere struggled in his first season in the NL. John Mayberry Jr. and Delmon Young received most of the at-bats that are now penciled in for Byrd.
Amaro seems inclined to let the left-handed-hitting Cody Asche and No. 2-ranked prospect Maikel Franco battle for the third-base job, leaving catching as the only position that needs to be addressed. The team hasn't ruled out re-signing free agent Carlos Ruiz, although he'll be 35 when next season begins.
It would be automatic to turn the page from Ruiz if the Phillies were seriously retooling. But that's not the way the Phils do business.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.