COMMENTARY | For the first time in 20 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates made it to the playoffs, coming one win away from a trip to the NLCS.
While the team has been incrementally improving over the last half decade, no one expected the Pirates to challenge for the NL Central and win 94 games. But just because the Pirates experienced success once, doesn't mean things are going to get any easier. The front office will need to remain as vigilant as it ever was, not getting sentimental when it comes to the players who helped the team top that .500 mark for the first time since The Golden Girls were on the air. And that applies to midseason acquisition and immediate Pittsburgh hero Marlon Byrd.
Acquired in a waiver trade on August 27 along with John Buck in exchange for Victor Black and Dilson Herrera, the 35-year-old outfielder made an immediate impact on the Pirates. When Byrd was brought to the team, Pirates right fielders were hitting an anemic .232/.297/.369. Byrd, in 115 PA for the Pirates, hit .318/.357/.486 with 3 HRs and 17 RBIs. It seemed that every time the Pirates needed a big hit, every time the Pirates' season seemed about to veer off course, Byrd would come to the plate and rap a liner to the outfield. After watching Travis Snider and Jose Tabata flail around at the plate, it was a revelation.
Byrd kept up his hot streak in the postseason, too, hitting .364/.391/.591 and forcing teams to respect the middle of the Pirates' lineup beyond just Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. In six short weeks, he had become a fan favorite, filling one of the few holes in the Pirates' lineup.
But the Pirates can't think about that when they look to offer him a contract, one that will be exponentially higher than the $700,000 he earned this season. Instead, they need to look at him pragmatically. Byrd will be 36 years old next season, his career OPS+ a very-league-average 102.
And while his 2013 line, combining his time with the New York Mets and Pirates, was a strong .291/.336/.511, the team has to remember this was the same player who, the year before, hit .210/.243/.245 in 153 PA with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs before being suspended 50 games for PED use. The same player whose only other 20 HR season came when he played for the Texas Rangers in their hitter-friendly park.
The Pirates, even with Byrd for that final month, finished 19th in runs per game, and will definitely be in need of more offensive production next season. A repeat year from Marlon Byrd would be exactly what the team is looking for. But very rarely do players continue to improve on career years at the age of 36. It's far more likely that Byrd would start succumbing to age, minor injuries springing up at every turn, defensive range becoming limited, and bat speed slowing down, rather than another year where his OPS was actually greater than a favorite of Pirates trade rumors, Giancarlo Stanton.
It's rarely a guarantee that keeping the team intact to go for another shot will work. After winning the 2012 World Series, Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants kept the core of the team largely in tact. This year, they finished 76-86, two games in front of the Colorado Rockies for last place in the NL West.
While the Pirates are younger, the lessons are the same: The players that performed above their heads one year will rarely do so the next. Can the Pirates really expect Pedro Alvarez to lead the league in home runs again? For Francisco Liriano to post his lowest ERA since 2006? For Marlon Byrd to have the highest OPS of his career?
The free-agent market is slim and, barring a trade, Marlon Byrd could be the best value to strengthen right field. But a reunion tour with Byrd will require the Pirates to be smart and not allow the warm glow of October baseball to cloud their judgment. No matter how strong the farm system is, no matter how much fans like Marlon Byrd, the team can't afford to make expensive mistakes.
Otherwise, another 94-win season will be a long ways off.
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