Marlon Byrd and the price of power

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Phillies have reportedly signed outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract, and at first glance it may seem as if the Nationals’ NL East rival overpaid for a 36-year-old who made $700,000 last year and was released twice in 2012. Like so many signings in recent seasons, the deal drew instant mockery. And also like so many signings in recent seasons, it should not have.

The notion that the Phillies overpaid for Byrd first discounts how much money is in the game and how that money is being spent. A lot of contracts are going to raise eyebrows and cause jaws to drop this winter. And at the end of the day, owners are still going to collect far, far more of baseball’s skyrocketing revenue than the players. Player contracts have not caught up to television rights deals, and a shift toward contract extensions has shrunk the free agent pool. The combination of more money in the game and fewer available players to freely spend it on means more cash for free agents.

The market for slugging will be particularly robust. Five years ago, 62 players hit at least 24 home runs. In 2013, Byrd was one of 36 players who hit 24 homers. For a number of reasons, strikeouts have soared, scoring has dipped and home runs have plummeted. As one agent said, “a middle-of-the-lineup guy now is 23 [homers] and 80 [RBI].” Power is going to get paid.

Byrd may or may not make good on his contract with Philadelphia. What happens after opening day will determine that. But by spring training, given the game’s market forces, his contract figures to be right in line.

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