Cleveland Indians: Should They Have Known Better With Marlon Byrd?

Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

I can’t justify what Marlon Byrd did, but I do get it.  Anyone who engages in an athletic pursuit for any length of time reaches a point where his skills are not what they once were.  For me, it was when I had to move to the over-50 soccer league because I could no longer keep up in the over-40 league.  Hardly earth shattering, but personally traumatic. But not matter what you do, the truth is there in front of you.  You can get by on smarts or extra hustle for a while, but eventually, you just aren’t good enough, and you know it before anyone else. 

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For a major league baseball player who is 38 years old, the loss of skills takes more than an emotional toll.  He is losing a way of life, plus a seven figure income.  Ethical issues aside, Marlon Byrd finds himself this morning precisely where he was in February:  an unemployed baseball player.  His reputation has taken a hit, but he has made several hundred thousand dollars and spent a few months on a major league roster that he may not have otherwise.  If he feels that taking performance-enhancing drugs helped him do that, even if it had a placebo effect, he has come out ahead.

The more complicated ethical question involves the Indians, and whether they are a victim or an accomplice.  At first glance, they have suffered greatly, losing a starting outfielder.  Moreover, they have incurred opportunity cost because they surrendered the chance to sign any number of players as alternatives, including those who went to spring training with them and were cut once Byrd was signed.  Whether any of those guys (some of whom are still looking for work) would have been good enough to hold a roster spot and help win games is an open question, but for now the Indians don’t have those guys and they don’t have Byrd, either.

But the Cleveland Indians knew about Byrd’s history, and they knew that 29 other teams had taken a look and decided not to offer him even a minor league deal, even though he had three straight years of 20-plus home runs.  The Indians looked at Byrd and decided that he was worth the risk, that getting someone who could mash left-handed pitching and would only cost a million dollars outweighed the downside of his history and the likelihood that he may still have been juicing.  To some degree, signing Byrd was like buying a watch from a guy on the street – it looks a lot better if you don’t think too much about it.

All of which raises some questions:  like, how often has Byrd been tested since his 2012 suspension?  Did the Indians have access to the results of those tests, and should they have?  Does his right to confidentiality trump their right to know whether they are getting tainted good?   It’s hard to imagine that Byrd took whatever supplements got him banned after he signed with the Indians.  Should the Indians have had the right to ask Byrd to be tested before they signed him?  We know that he passed a physical, and we have seen players flunk physicals for issues so minor that you wonder why they even looked for them.  Should a PED test be part of any free agent physical, or at least for the players who have already failed tests?

In any event, one could make the case that this is what happens when you aren’t willing to spend more than a million dollars on a starting outfielder.  Many people thought at the time that Byrd was signed that he was a stopgap until Michael Brantley got healthy; if Brantley’s recovery had gone as planned, Byrd would have fulfilled that goal.  For now, an outfield of Rajai Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez, and Tyler Naquin provides four options who all have an OPS above .742, so the situation is not as dire as some seem to believe, although either Chisenhall or Naquin will have to play against left-handers at some point.

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The company line still seems to be that Brantley will at some point be fully healthy, and Abraham Almonte will be eligible to return in about a month.  Unless Brantley is worse than anyone is letting on, or Almonte is no longer considered a viable option, the Indians appear to have enough depth to withstand this blow.