Byrnes a Keeper
“We had a lot of inquiries over the winter,” said A’s general manager Billy Beane in a telephone conversation from Arizona, “but there are no ongoing talks. A lot of clubs like Byrnes – but we like him, too. It’s always a matter of balancing what you’ll get with what you’re giving up, and we haven’t heard anything yet to make us want to make a trade.”
Beane referred to the A’s outfield situation as “crowded,” with rookie Nick Swisher and the highly-regarded Charles Thomas coming over in a trade to join veterans Byrnes, Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay. Only Kotsay, who played superbly in centerfield while hitting .314 with 15 home runs, is assured of a starting job. “We’ll have to sort that all out,” Beane said.
If there’s a trade, though, Kielty should be the one to go. Beane had hoped last year that Kielty would be effective as a right-handed hitter against the preponderance of left-handed pitching the A’s see, but he hit only .214 in an injury-marred season. He’s better than that, but not much. His major league average in parts of four seasons is .250, and he’s only six months younger than Byrnes, who turned 29 last month.
Meanwhile, Byrnes hit .344 against left-handers last season.
BYRNES IS also a huge fan favorite. “I try not to get all warm and fuzzy about that,” Beane said, “because it’s the general manager’s job to put the best possible team on the field. But it’s not hard to see why fans like him, with his energy and hustle – and those are the things we (Beane and manager Ken Macha) like about him, too.”
Despite Beane’s assurances, I’ve never felt the A’s have fully appreciated Byrnes, possibly because he strikes out so much – 111 times last season. He’s working this spring to cut down that number, mostly by laying off that pitch just off the outside corner. He’s had a tendency to swing at – and miss – that pitch much too often in the past.
Beane has always looked for hitters with high on-base percentages which, by definition, means hitters who have good plate discipline. That’s even more important this year because, with less power than in recent years, this A’s team will be running more, not just stealing bases but using the hit-and-run, too. That’s possible only if the hitter can be relied on to make contact. Macha would have preferred to have his team do more running last season, but too often, he knew that sending a runner might just mean running into an out because the hitter didn’t make contact.
If Byrnes can develop more plate consistency, he could be even more valuable because of his versatility. He’s the fastest man on the team and the most effective base stealer – he stole 17 in 18 attempts last season – so he could bat second behind Kotsay, with the newly-acquired Jason Kendall batting third, Eric Chavez fourth and Erubiel Durazo fifth.
Because Byrnes also has power – 20 homers last season and 42 extra-base hits among his 161 hits – Macha could also bat him fifth, dropping Durazo to the sixth slot in which he was most effective last season.
Either way, Byrnes is valuable. With his dedication to improvement, I’m sure he’ll cut down significantly on his strikeouts this season.
I ADMIT my bias here: I love the guy. He’s a throwback to an earlier era when players gave 100 per cent and didn’t complain. Today players complain if they aren’t playing every day, even if they’re not doing much, or if the manager puts them in a different spot in the batting order than they want, or just that the manager is critical of their poor play. Terrence Long comes to mind.
Not Byrnes. He just plays, and he’s always done better than expected. He was only an eighth-round draft pick and not regarded highly in the organization, but he played himself onto the roster in 2002 and has been there ever since.
When he started in pro ball, his fielding was an adventure, but he worked on that until he became good enough that he’s even started some games in center for the A’s. That’s typical of Byrnes. The only natural part of his game is his speed, but he’s worked so hard on his game, even playing winter ball so he could improve, that he’s become a real player.
Offensively, he’s improved every year. His average has gone up from .245 in 2002 to .283 last year, and his on-base percentage from .326 to .347. His home run total has jumped from just three in 90 games in 2002 to the 20 in 143 games last season.
BYRNES IS still a streaky hitter, with incredibly hot spells balanced with equally cold spells. He probably always will have that tendency because of his personality, but the hot spells are lasting longer now and the cold spells ending quicker.
He’s a keeper. Let’s hope Beane continues to realize that.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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