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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts: #8, Eric Byrnes

I’ve never seen a fanbase turn against a player so fast and hard.

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
  • Date signed: August 2007
  • Length: three years (2008-2010)
  • Cost at time: $30 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $46.90 million
  • Production: -1.7 bWAR
  • Negative value: $60.50 million

How the player got there

“I don’t think we could have signed a better guy to represent this team and this organization than Eric Byrnes. First and foremost, what he does out on the field. He leaves it out there every inning of every game. With the group of young guys coming up, this is the perfect example to have for these guys to learn from.”
Bob Melvin, August 7 2007.

Byrnes arrived in Arizona in December 2005, at a bit of a low point, having hit only .226 that season, between Oakland, Colorado and Baltimore. He signed a one-year deal for $2.25 million with the D-backs, saying, “I didn’t even want a two-year deal. A couple of teams mentioned it but I didn’t even think I deserved it. It was about getting an opportunity to prove that I was a lot better hitter than I was last year. I know I am, and I think Arizona has given me a vote of confidence.” He was given the chance to play center while prospect Chris Young matured a bit longer in the minors, and Byrnes had a solid rebound year in 2006, hitting .267 with 26 home-runs, and was worth 1.8 bWAR.

He got another one-year deal for 2007, for $4.575 million, and moved across to left field since Young was deemed ready. He then blistered his way out of the blocks, hitting over .300 for much of the time, leading the way on and off the field. There had been conversations about an extension, but these had broken down. However, around the same time as the Diamondbacks took first place in the NL West, towards the end of July, then D-backs’ chief executive officer, Jeff Moorad, shocked Byrnes by calling the player into his office with a new deal. He wasn’t the only one: even ESPN called his time before Arizona “a mostly unspectacular career.”

They’re not incorrect. Over seven years in the majors going into 2007, the 31-year-old Byrnes had an OPS+ of 98, and been competent rather than spectacular defensively. This all added up to a value of 8.4 bWAR across 2,313 plate appearances. But on July 27, Eric was batting .310 with an .877 OPS in 461 PA, more than a hundred OPS points higher than his career figure before that year. That lured in the Diamondbacks to a $30 million deal. Byrnes got a $2 million signing bonus, then $6 million in 2008, and $11 million in each of 2009 and 2010. “I’ve always felt that all I needed was an opportunity,” he said on signing the deal.

What went wrong

Byrnes has become a fan favorite because of his offbeat, outgoing California surfer personality and full-tilt play on the field, which results in a constantly dirty uniform and, when he takes of his cap, a disheveled mess of blond hair. “He is a mite entertaining,” Melvin said, “and I think that might go a long way in this day and age. He looks like he’s having fun out there at all times, and you don’t see that very often.”

Eric Byrnes is, almost single-handedly, the reason why Mrs. SnakePit is so strongly averse to giving players guaranteed contracts. Of the dozen cases we’re discussing in this series, there are only three where the player in question was actually valued below replacement level over the course of the contract. This is one of them. Now, there are mitigating factors, not least health (which we’ll get to in a minute). But it certainly felt (not least, to Mrs. SnakePit) that Byrnes stopped putting in the effort as soon as he got the long-term contract. Evidence for this can be seen if we look at his numbers before and after the extension was officially announced on August 7:

Before August 7: .303/.365/.497 = .862 OPS
August 7 on: .243/.324/.370 = .694 OPS

It’s a drop-off of 166 points of OPS, literally following the stroke of a pen. The post-signing number is also much closer to what we got from Byrnes once the contract took effect: a mere .635 OPS, or a 63 OPS+ from 2008-10. The latter figure puts him in the bottom ten of the 381 players to have at least 500 PA over those three seasons. In the view of many fans, Byrnes’s brash and extrovert personality turned from endearing eccentricity into poisonous egocentricity. Matters weren’t helped by the genuinely terrible Eric Byrnes Show on Fox Sports Arizona. This depicted the player as apparently more interested, say, in his line of clothing, than fixing the increasingly obvious flaws in his game.

To be fair, Byrnes also had health problems, and now admits he should not have ignored them. “I should have never went out and played in 2008. I had a twinge in my hamstring, I tried to play through it, I kept trying to push it. I eventually tore it off the bone. And it was my bravado of thinking, ‘Oh hey, I’ve got this new contract and I’m the leader of the team now, I’ve got to play through injury.’ The stupidest thing I could have ever done because I end up tearing the hamstring completely off the bone, end up costing me a year and a half.” But things like the front-flip he developed while throwing from the outfield, seemed more indicative of a showboater than a serious ballplayer.

The team tried to trade Byrnes in 2009, but were unable to get any interest. They ended up simply releasing him the following January, to make room for Adam Laroche, and eating the entire $11 million owed to him. He had a brief stint in Seattle, but that ended in equally bizarre fashion, after Byrnes hit .094 over fifteen games. In his penultimate MLB appearance, he pulled his bat back and didn’t even offer at the pitch, on what should have been a suicide squeeze, leading to an easy out by Ichiro at the plate. ESPN’s Jim Caple said it “may have been the worst at-bat in major league history.” Byrnes then bolted on his bicycle past the Mariners GM, who was heading to the clubhouse.

Two days later, he was released by Seattle, and finished out the contract as the highest-paid beer league softball player ever. A more fitting end is difficult to imagine.

Biggest lesson to be learned

Signing a player to a long-term extension based on a career year four months, rarely works out in the club’s favor.