Last offseason, the New York Mets signed outfielder Marlon Byrd to a minor league contract with an invite to the major league spring training camp. The signing was mostly an afterthought as Byrd was coming off a two-year stretch in which he hit just .260/.305/.358 and included a suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug and a stint in the Mexican League.
By season's end, Byrd hit 24 home runs and had 64 total extra-base hits while playing for New York and Pittsburgh and parlayed that success into a new two-year deal from Philadelphia. All in all, the Mets rostered a 3.5-win player and a pitcher for a $700,000 contract. It paid off even more than the $1.1 million deal the Mets gave Scott Hairston in 2012 as he had a 1.6-win season for them as a platoon outfielder.
Each season, we see some version of this move where a team will give a hitter with a power pedigree a cheap deal and the player pays off. In 2006, Miami plucked Dan Uggla out of the Rule 5 draft and he hit 27 home runs as a rookie in a 4.2-win season. In 2007, Tampa Bay gave Carlos Pena a similar deal after he'd been let go in 2006 by the Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox, and watched him post a 5.5-win season while hitting 46 home runs after starting first baseman Greg Norton was lost with an injury on the last day of spring training. The following season, the Rays brought in Eric Hinske on a similar deal and Hinske hit 20 home runs, had a 2-win season, and convinced Evan Longoria to sign his first team-friendly contract. Most recently, Seattle paid Raul Ibanez $2.75M to hit 29 home runs in 2013.
The league-wide slugging percentage has dropped 36 points over the past eight seasons from .432 to .396. As offensive numbers continue to taper off while teams improve their run-prevention strategies, it has put an increased premium on acquiring power. Power has rarely come cheaply, and that will only get tougher as the game continues to trend as it does. Stories like Byrd are rare; teams tend to go with players a more recent record of success.
Corey Hart and Michael Morse are the most recent examples of this. Hart, despite missing all of 2013 with surgeries on both knees, received $5 million from Seattle and has not been ruled out to play the outfield. Morse, a very poor defensive outfielder, was given $5 million by San Francisco and will play left field.
If a team wants to pay for some power hitting, Kendrys Morales is still available on the free-agent market. He is only available because signing him will require a team to give up its highest-remaining draft pick in the 2014 amateur draft and teams prefer keeping those draft picks. Nelson Cruz is also going to be there for a team willing to pay the price for his services.
If the other teams are looking to acquire cheap power along the lines of what Byrd, Hinske, Ibanez, Pena and Uggla have done in recent seasons, there are relatively few options to consider.
John Buck stands out in a very weak free-agent class as the best power source for teams looking for a second catcher. Buck's skills are in decline, but he has hit at least 12 home runs in each of the past four seasons.
Wilson Betemit missed most of 2013 with a knee injury. From 2009-2012, Betemit had a .361 wOBA against right-handed pitching over 813 plate appearances that included 85 extra-base hits. Betemit has switch-hit throughout his career, but has done nearly all of his damage as a left-handed batter. He is currently playing winter ball in the Dominican League.
Mark Reynolds has hit 157 home runs over the past five seasons, but has also struck out 943 times. The three-true-outcome player has played for four organizations in three years and his value relies solely upon how many of his fly balls make it over the fence.
Kevin Youkilis has not hit more than 20 home runs since 2009 despite playing in hitter-friendly parks. A back injury ruined his 2013 season and he is looking for a rebound season in 2014. A three-year decline in his Isolated Power from 2010-2012 paints a pessimistic picture for his ability to once again hit for power.
Ibanez is back out on the market after his surprising power season in Seattle. At 41 (42 in June), he should be limited to a designated hitter role in the American League. His home run-to-fly ball ratio was an even 20 percent last season while his five-year rate is 14 percent. He defies his age as his Isolated Power rating has improved each of the past four seasons. The Angels are the latest team rumored to have interest in him.
It was just two seasons ago that Jason Kubel hit 30 home runs for Arizona. That season came on the heels of a three-year decline in his Isolated Power rating. His 18 percent home run-to-fly ball rate helped him make his first year in Arizona a great one. Last season was the exact opposite as he began the year injured and never found his groove. Year by year, his strikeout rate continues to increase and his splits get worse. Those splits, his contact issues and his defensive challenges limit his options to produce again.
It would be rather surprising to see a Marlon Byrd come out of this group of free agents in 2014, almost as surprising as what we saw from him and Ibanez in 2013. For teams with vacancies at either the infield or outfield corners or behind the plate, the trade market may present safer alternatives such as Ike Davis or Justin Smoak.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays, and contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.