By Brad Kallet, WFAN.com
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The Mets enter the 2013 season with arguably — if not unquestionably — the worst outfield in Major League Baseball.
For the majority of the offseason, Lucas Duda (left field), Kirk Nieuwenhuis (center field) and Mike Baxter (right field) were projected to be the Opening Day starters for when the Mets kick off their season against the Padres on April 1 at Citi Field.
Not a whole lot has changed with two days of spring training games in the books. Manager Terry Collins has all but guaranteed that Duda will start in left field, with the Mets desperately needing power in their lineup. Duda, despite his struggles defensively and his issues against left-handed pitchers, has some raw power, and the Amazin’s seem to believe — or maybe just want to believe — that he can hit 25 home runs over a full season. Nieuwenhuis has a terrific shot of keeping the center-field job, although there will be competition in camp from the likes of Jordany Valdespin, Collin Cowgill and Andrew Brown.
But a new factor did come into play in regard to the outfield landscape when general manager Sandy Alderson signed veteran Marlon Byrd to a minor-league contract on February 1.
Though he’s no spring chicken, Byrd is the only outfielder in camp who has proven that he can hack it at the major-league level. The 35-year-old, who made his big-league debut with the Phillies in 2002, was an All-Star with the Cubs in 2010. Byrd was very solid at the dish that season, batting .293 with 12 home runs, 66 RBIs and 39 doubles. Prior to joining the Cubs, he hit .307, .298 and .283, respectively, in his three years with the Rangers. He went deep 20 times for Texas in 2009.
Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet, but there is productivity there. But to be fair — and to be a realist — Byrd has fallen off considerably since his days in Texas and Chicago. On June 9 of last season, the 6-foot-0, 225-pounder was designated for assignment by the Red Sox after being traded to Beantown on April 21. He was released three days later. Later that month, Byrd was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance. In just 47 games split between the Red Sox and Cubs, the Boynton Beach, Fla., native batted .210 with one home run and nine RBIs in 2012.
But the past is the past, and the fact is that the Mets need a power-hitting, right-handed bat in their lineup in the worst way. They need a presence in their order to hit fifth or sixth behind David Wright, Ike Davis and Duda — and hopefully sooner rather than later, Travis d’Arnaud. Though Byrd was never a 30-homer guy, he had pop in his bat and intimidated pitchers. And what’s the other option? Baxter is left-handed and has virtually no power, and while Valdespin has shown promise, he’s yet to prove that he can succeed consistently at this level.
For what it’s worth, Byrd has gotten himself into better playing shape, and he took the initiative to play winter ball in the offseason — something that 35-year-old veterans rarely do — in an effort to show big-league clubs that the talent is still there. Byrd excelled south of the border, batting .318 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs in the Mexican Pacific League. Although hurlers in the Mexican Pacific League aren’t exactly up to par with those in the National League, you simply can’t discount those numbers.
We finally got an opportunity to watch Byrd in action this past Saturday in the Mets’ spring opener against the Nationals. Batting fifth in the lineup behind Davis — and starting in right field — Byrd belted an opposite-field double into the gap off of Nats ace Stephen Strasburg. In his second at-bat he drilled a line-drive base hit up the middle. Neither of these hits had eyes; both were rockets that showcased Byrd’s impressive bat speed.
Byrd capped off his first weekend in Port St. Lucie with an RBI single and a walk on Sunday.
Might I be putting too much stock in a guy who was traded, released, suspended and relegated to the Mexican Pacific League in less than a year? Possibly. Might he be just another wishful-thinking signing who disappoints and does nothing to improve the club? Absolutely.
But there’s potential there. There’s a chance. There’s a job to be won for a player who was once a threatening major-league hitter — and could be again. And with the current state of this outfield, that hope and belief is all that Mets fans have right now.
It will be most interesting to see how it plays out as camp progresses.
Byrd might not be the player that he once was, but should he be the frontrunner for the right-field job as spring games get under way? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…