We know that baseball goes through cyclical shortages of players at the various positions. When I was a teenager, there was a moment when Ron Karkovice was considered to be state of the art in young catchers. The position was going through a temporary dry spell, and there was much hand-wringing at the time about how there were no more good young catchers, and grey-headed writers moaning that the kids today, they just don't want to go behind the plate and get beat up like their more masculine forebears, the damned hippies. When Benito Santiago came along, everyone forgot that catching was dead and moved on to the lack of shortstops after Cal Ripken.
Nevertheless, it seems odd to think that there aren't enough outfielders to go around. Yes, every team needs three of them, so there's a greater demand for outfielders than any position after pitcher, but -- and this is not intended to diminish the great athleticism shown by many outfielders -- this is the position of Greg Luzinski, Pete Incaviglia, and Raul Ibanez -- teams have won World Series with outfielders whose approach to defense was to stand around and when a ball was hit to them, pick it up on the first bounce and try to hold the runner to a single. If a corner guy hits enough, teams can tolerate defensive weakness.
The foregoing doesn't explain the career of Delmon Young, but never mind that for now.
The New York Mets would seem to be operating in a world in which an outfielder shortage is very real. Outfielders in camp include Collin Cowgill, Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and Marlon Byrd, with helpings of utilityman Jordany Valdespin. The squat Cowgill is a surprisingly effective defensive outfielder, though he seems unlikely to hit much given the degree to which right-handed pitchers have dominated him (.223/.273/.241 in a possibly too-small sample of 121 plate appearances). Duda can hit a little, but pitcher's seemed to figure him out last season; he hit .214/.296/.348 in the second half. He's a horror show in the field. Nieuwenhuis is only 25, but might prove to be the deadliest of all game, the outfielder with sub-center field range and a sub-corner bat.
There's nothing exactly wrong with this group, except that there's very little to recommend any of them as starters. To paraphrase Pirandello (or Rod Serling), they are four fourth outfielders in search of a bench ... except for Duda, who might not be that either.
Actually, the same could go for Byrd, who, we learned on Wednesday, is "99.9% certain" to exit camp with the starting right field job in his back pocket. We here at SB Nation love a good redemption story as much as anybody else, but let's think on this for a moment: Byrd is a career center fielder who, by and large, has hit like a center fielder. He's a career .278/.336/.413 hitter (97 OPS+) who ended last season by being (A) released by the Red Sox, a team so desperate for healthy players the ballboys were this close to being activated, and (B) placed on the suspended list for taking a banned substance, Tamoxifen, a breast cancer drug sometimes abused by steroid users. (Oddly, though Byrd was unemployed during his suspension, MLB considers the sentence served.)
It will come as no surprise that right field is usually one of a team's offensive centers. Over the last three seasons, major league right fielders have hit .267/.337/.440 as a group. Byrd hit .293/.346/.429 (105 OPS+) for the Cubs in 2010 and was hitting .308/.346/.419 in 2011 when Alfredo Aceves hit him in the face with a pitch. The outfielder suffered multiple facial fractures and missed 39 games. He hit only .255/.311/.380 open returning, and only .210/.243/.245 in sporadic play in 2012. At his best, Byrd could have been a productive right fielder, though it's worth noting that his best came during shortened seasons with the Rangers in 2007 and 2008. In the former season he had to play his way back from the minors, in the latter he lost time to a knee injury. Two other strong seasons, 2005 and 2010, were center-field like in their offensive profile. His 20-home runs 2009 season was overwhelmingly a product of the Ballpark at Arlington.
I realize the Mets are operating under budgetary restrictions. Last season's payroll was their lowest since 2000, and this season's looks like it will be lower still. Despite this, there are some positive things happening -- Matt Harvey will open the season in the rotation, Zach Wheeler should be along soon. Travis d'Arnaud will be the starting catcher ere long, and perhaps top-10 prospect Wilmer Flores will be ready for a cup of coffee by the end of the season. Add in Ike Davis's recovery from a miserable start (.251/.341/.536 from June 1 on) and the contract extension that should keep David Wright locked up for the rest of his career, and even the sort-of neutral competency of Ruben Tejada, and it's fair to say that the Mets have progressed.
And yet, the outfield rankles. Choosing Byrd on the basis of 40 or so Grapefruit League plate appearances rankles. Sure, he's a placeholder, but it's not clear who he's a placeholder for. I'm not suggesting the Mets should have been in on the Josh Hamilton types this winter, because they're not at the point that a big-dollar acquisition is going to put them into the postseason, but if the alignment of player and dollars wasn't there, you might as well play a kid like Nieuwenhuis, no matter how unpromising, or take a Triple-A vet like Jamie Hoffmann or Andrew Brown, also in camp, and see if you can find a diamond in the rough. Hoffmann's .172 average in 30 plate appearances is no more meaningful than Byrd's .314 in 39.
The one thing you want to see in a rebuilding team is a consistency of approach, a bold, unflinchingly straight directional arrow that indicates that there is a plan at work. Think back to the Mets of the late 1970s, the broke team of the post-Seaver period. That club had nearly as many good young players as this Mets team does in Lee Mazzilli, John Stearns, Steve Henderson, and Craig Swan. It never got anywhere because ownership and management were a mess, both unwilling and unable to compete in an age of free agency. Management couldn't be bothered to surround the good parts, the competitive-team starter set that was on hand in 1978, with quality veterans. It took new ownership in the form of Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday to get things turned around.
Sandy Alderson, and excellent baseball man, could not be more different from M. Donald Grant, the team's de facto architect in those years, but settling for Byrd is a move that screams that, however more solid the club's financial footing is four years and change after the revelation of the Madoff scandal, it still hasn't fully escaped the bankruptcy mentality. Here's hoping that the Mets are right and Byrd has gotten a second wind. Regardless, it's still a bad show -- Jason Bay off the books, R.A. Dickey, too, and all they could give their fans to replace them was the tired-out Tamoxifen Kid.