Marlon Byrd and the real meaning of “sell high”

Fan perceptions of Marlon Byrd's trade value are just as unreal as his 2013 numbers. (USA Today Sports)

Fan perceptions of Marlon Byrd's trade value are just as unreal as his 2013 numbers. (USA Today Sports)

Marlon Byrd hit another home run Sunday, his 17th of the season, against Cliff Lee. Three games after the All-Star break, Byrd owns a .277/.322/.519 line and leads the club in homers. The Mets sit 10 games behind Atlanta in the National League East, and they’re just as far behind Cincinnati in the Wild Card chase. Byrd is making just over the league minimum on a one-year deal, and he’s having a career year at age 35. With the Mets squarely in rebuilding mode, the situation screams, “Sell high!”

Sandy Alderson, Mets GM and Godfather of Moneyball, isn’t in such a rush to trade Byrd, however. He told the Star-Ledger he would have to be “overwhelmed” by an offer to let Byrd fly free.

Given the Mets’ current situation, holding on to Byrd looks like a Pyrrhic decision at best. The Mets should win more games with him in the outfield than Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Andrew Brown, but those victories will be meaningless. As Alderson has acknowledged, the club is trying to stockpile talent for the future. Holding onto Byrd is in diametric opposition to that goal.

But focusing on the word “overwhelmed” misses the most important line from Alderson in the story: “A guy like Marlon, he’s not costing us a lot of money; there’s the question then of what kind of talent we might be able to get back.” What kind of talent would a typical right fielder with a 841 OPS bring back in a trade? Can you realistically imagine Marlon Byrd getting the same return?

The idea of selling high is too often seen as a purely statistical notion. Is a player with a career 750 OPS putting up a 900 mark in July? Sell high! Is a pitcher posting a 2.50 ERA in the first half after years of middling performance? Sell high! Does a hitter have a .200 BABIP? Buy low! This is the kind of attitude that begets a John Buck for Andrew McCutchen trade offer in mid-April, when Buck had 6 home runs in 10 games and McCutchen was hitting .233.

Of course, the avid fantasy player swiftly rejects the John Buck trade, and every major league general manager will reject its Marlon Byrd equivalent for the same reason: context matters. The context surrounding Byrd does nothing but hurt his value: his career OPS+ is just 99 compared to this season’s 130; his defense is only viable in the corner outfield positions; he tested positive for PEDs in 2012; and, perhaps most relevant, he hit a putrid .210/.243/.245 in the majors in 2012, and he hit .222 without power in the Caribbean Series this winter.

So when Alderson says he needs to be “overwhelmed” to deal Byrd, he might just mean that he needs one young, quality prospect with intriguing upside. Considering where Byrd was in 2012, Alderson likely would’ve been overwhelmed to receive any kind of prospect in a trade. Now? With the Mets lacking warm bodies in the outfield, opposing clubs are going to have to make the resulting hassle of filling the outfield on an everyday basis — a task that has proven difficult enough for the Mets this season — worth Alderson’s while.

This is the reality of the trade deadline. Every team in “sell” mode has its obvious “sell high” players, but trade dynamics are never quite so simple. Sometimes, there are reasons to believe the perceived high is the new normal. Sometimes, the new low looks like it’s here to stay. Sometimes, no amount of great play in one season can convince the trade market a player is a new man, and this is likely the case with Byrd.

The Byrd storyline will play itself out through fanbases across the league, until the trade deadline mercifully passes on July 31. There is always hope somebody out there will miss the obvious flaws of your club’s over-performing veteran, and it only takes one sucker. Maybe Alderson finds the sucker, and maybe the sucker makes an overwhelming offer. But when Alderson demands an overwhelming offer, he’s merely being realistic. To sell high in earnest requires value beyond statistics, a value Marlon Byrd simply doesn’t possess.

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