On the final day of 2009, Jim Hendry of the Cubs announced the signing of Marlon Byrd to a three-year, $15 Million contract. First off, I grant that figure is well shy of the $36 Million he gave Milton Bradley almost exactly a year ago, but it is nonetheless a sizable amount to pay an outfielder in his early thirties with an extensive injury history who is coming off a career year...playing at the Ballpark in Arlington, a stadium famous for offensive inflation.
Consider a few precedents...
Gary Matthews Jr.:
In 2006, at the age of 30, Matthews Jr. scored 102 runs, hit 19 HR, and posted a 866 OPS while playing for the Rangers. He had 164 more plate appearances (690) than in any other season of his career. His 2006 performance, combined with his consistent defensive prowess, led the Angels to sign him to an enormous contract (5 yr./$50 Mil). Over the first three seasons of that contract he has averaged 59 R, 10 HR, and 56 RBI, with an OPS of 708. His plate appearances have declined in every season, to just 360 in '09 and he is now considered nothing more than a very expensive fourth outfielder.
In 2005, at the age of 31, Delluci slammed 29 HR for the Rangers, 12 more than in any other season of his career. That season he also posted career highs in plate appearances (518), runs (97), hits (109), RBI (65), and walks (76), as well as an 879 OPS, prompting the Indians to sign him to a three-year, $11.5 Million deal. In two full seasons with the Tribe, he managed only 514 at-bats and a 700 OPS, 15 HR, and 66 runs scored.
Mench posted two straight seasons of 25 HR and 70 RBI with the Rangers in '04 and '05, prompting the Brewers to demand that he be a key component in the trade that netted the Rangers Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz. With the Rangers, Mench had been good for a long ball about once every 23 at-bats. With the Brewers that rate doubled, and he managed just nine more homers in '07 and '08, before dropping out of baseball entirely.
And then, of course, there is Milton Bradley. Sure, Bradley showed a lot more promise throughout his career before his stop in Texas than most of these jokers, but 2008 was nonetheless a serious anomaly. Bradly, at the age of 30, posted career highs in runs (78), HR (22), RBI (77), walks (80), batting average (.321), on-base percentage (.436), and slugging percentage (.563). Hopefully, Jim Hendry can remember what happened next. Upon arriving in Chicago, despite making almost exactly as many trips to the plate (473 compared to 509 in Texas), his OPS dropped by more than 200 points, from 999 to 775.
Perhaps the Cubs front office is really convinced that the reason for the drastic drop in production demonstrated by these examples is not the exit from the friendly confines of Arlington, but rather the separation from Rudy Jaramillo, the former Ranger hitting coach they recently acquired. Don't drink that Kool-Aid. Here is the rank of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for Home Run and Run Production the last two seasons:
2008 - #1 in R, #5 in HR
2009 - #7 in R, #3 in HR
Now Wrigley Field isn't exactly a pitcher's paradise, but...
The thing that angers me most about this signing is that the Cubs are pretending that this solves the "centerfield problem" which has been plaguing the club for at least the last decade (some would probably argue that the Cubs have had a centerfield problem ever since they traded Rick Monday to the Dodgers prior to the '77 season). Marlon Byrd ain't no goddamn centerfielder. Yes, over the course of his career, Marlon Byrd has played more innings in center than anywhere else, but his teams have been constantly trying to change that. The Rangers put him out there last year in desperation, because Josh Hamilton was injured and Byrd was the next best option (at least until Julio Borbon came along). Marlon Byrd has never posted a range factor anywhere near the league average. In 2009, out of the twenty centerfielders who played as many innings as he did, Byrd finished 12th in range and 15th in UZR at -6.0. FanGraphs rated his arm as the worst among AL centerfielders.
While the rest of baseball is prioritizing defense, the Cubs have a left-fielder in center, a second-baseman at shortstop, and the adventurous Alfonso Soriano in left. Hendry has added another lengthy contract which simultaneously makes the team older, slower, and more right-handed. What a mess.