Indians Take Flyer on Byrd; Brantley Returns

While some may have spent their day lost in celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day and others enjoyed the first full day of March Madness, the Cleveland Indians made a little news of their own by adding free agent outfielder Marlon Byrd on a minor league contract to compete for one of the open outfield spots on the club’s roster for the 2016 season.

The move, while not yet made official by the Indians, is pending a physical.

The addition of Byrd seems to fit several needs for the Indians heading into the season and falls in line with many of the moves the team has made since the conclusion of last season. The 38-year-old is a low risk, low cost acquisition with the potential for some positive upside for the club and could fill the role of “right-handed power bat”, something incessantly sought out by Tribe fans over the last decade. His contract is worth a reported $1 million, contingent on making the roster, and comes after making $8 million in each of the last two years.

“I’m coming in on a minor league deal, it’s a tryout,” Byrd said in a story on today. “I did it in 2013, with the Mets. I was coming off the suspension, they were the one team that came in and gave me the shot. Same thing, there’s no promises coming in. I’ve got to come in and make the team and impress, not going off reputation or anything.

“I thought, with the numbers I’ve put up the last three years [averaging 24 home runs per season], I’d have more takers than just one team. You look at the numbers, the average went down, the on-base average went down, the strikeouts went too high, not enough walks. I am older in age, maybe teams weren’t looking for that. I can’t speak for other teams, I can just speculate. But there was something that the Indians saw, that they wanted to take a chance with these last three weeks.”

Last season, Byrd split the year between Cincinnati and San Francisco, the eighth and ninth big league stops in his 14-year career. He hit .247 with 25 doubles, 23 homers, and 73 RBI. He hit 13 of his doubles and 19 of his homers and drove in 42 of those runs while hitting .237 in 96 games for the Reds. He hit .272 with a dozen doubles, four homers, and 31 RBI in 39 games for the Giants.

His home run numbers in total would have led the Indians in 2015, and his production in Cincinnati alone would have matched the Tribe’s top mark for the season (Carlos Santana – 19).

Byrd has been reliable in the power department over each of the last several seasons, putting together four straight 20-homer seasons, including a career-high 25 with the Phillies in 2014. His strikeout numbers, incidentally, took a major upswing that season as he struck out a career-high 185 times while hitting .264.

He is extremely well traveled in recent memory, as the Indians could become his eighth big league organization to play for since 2012. In three of the last four years, he was dealt in season, twice to teams making a push for the postseason. Those dreams fell short last season with the Giants, but were fulfilled in 2013, when he hit .364 with a homer and five RBI with the Pirates as they reached the NLDS.

Byrd began his professional career with his tenth round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1999. He debuted with the club in 2002 and remained with the team until 2005, when he was traded to the Washington Nationals. After two seasons in the capital, he joined the Texas Rangers for three seasons before moving on to the Chicago Cubs for two-plus seasons, including his lone selection to the All-Star Game in 2010.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

He saw regular work in right field with the Giants to end last season and was the Reds’ left fielder prior to his trade. He has seen just six games of action in center field since the beginning of the 2013 season, so he would not be expected to claim that vacancy on the Indians’ roster.

“I’m an old man, so I don’t think they’re going to put me in center field,” Byrd shared. “A platoon, anything. I’m not expecting to come make this team and start. That’s not the case at all.”

Byrd has played frequently wherever he has landed, appearing in 109 games or more in every season since 2007 with the exception of 2012, when he was limited to just 47 games between the Cubs and Red Sox and was suspended for PED use.

The Indians have developed several offensive weapons over the years and have built the team around returning favorites Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, and super shortstop Francisco Lindor. Offseason moves addressed areas of weakness as well as established a new crew of veteran guys in the clubhouse like Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, and Juan Uribe. All three of the previous additions were of players on the back ends of their careers, as each was in his 30s and inked to one-year tenders to keep seats warm for the next wave of prospect options working their way through the club’s farm system.

“Can you name a better one-two-three-four in the game than their starting pitching?,” Byrd added about his prospective new teammates in Cleveland. “You’re talking about the excitement, you’ve got [Mike] Napoli coming in, [Juan] Uribe coming in, Yan Gomes being healthy, [Michael] Brantley coming back quick. [Francisco] Lindor, [Jason] Kipnis, no one even talks about him and he hit like .800 for a month. It’s a very exciting team.”

Byrd, if he can make an impact on the roster, would fill the exact same role as the other signed veterans. He could see regular platoon action with the left-handed hitting Lonnie Chisenhall in right field, or could get extra work in left field, which would allow the Indians to play Brantley and Davis in center some to fill the pressing void on the roster.

Speaking on Brantley, those hoping he can return to action by Opening Day got a good vote of confidence on Thursday after as the former All-Star made his Spring Training game debut in a minor league game, going 0-for-2 with a pair of groundouts. The bigger test for Brantley will be if he can make it into some games with the Major League squad prior to the end of camp and if his bat is not affected by the offseason surgery to his lead shoulder.

The outfield was and remains a point of concern for the Indians in the offseason, as the club has added Davis, Joey Butler, Michael Choice, Collin Cowgill, Robbie Grossman, Shane Robinson, and Will Venable to compete for openings in Cleveland’s outfield. The team was expecting to miss Brantley for a period of time to start the season and then lost center field hopeful Abraham Almonte on a PED suspension of his own. Prospect Tyler Naquin has impressed in spring action, but with little exposure in Triple-A and next to no time spent in the corner outfield spots in the minor leagues with the Tribe, he would not be expected to make the club out of camp unless the team is confident that the can be their every day center fielder.

Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

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