Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Eric Byrnes Article

"I got green and I got blues
And everyday, there's a little less difference between the two."

Sports Central asked me to write an article about Major League Baseball...and that was it. No specific topic, no guidelines for length, nothing. Just to get it done before next week. So, being the prompt and bored individual that I am, I did a 180 on the easy story, the Sox and anything to do with them, and decided to focus my efforts out west on Arizona's Eric Byrnes, a guy I have always liked (except the time he shoved Varitek). Now, he stands on the threshhold of winning a division for the D-Backs, and also, an MVP award for his troubles. Hope you enjoy:

Who Needs TV? The Eric Byrnes Show Is Already A Hit In Arizona

There's little doubt in anyone's mind where Eric Byrnes is going to go after he retires.

After rave reviews stemming from his stints as a contributor to Fox's coverage of Saturday baseball, and his co-hosting appearance at last year's World Series, Byrnes seems destined to become a great athlete-turned-TV personality when his playing days are over, but for now, let's take time to appreciate what Byrnes is doing on the field.

The D-Backs are 2.5 games up on San Diego in the NL West, and while the pitching of Brandon Webb and Jose Valverde, in addition to some last season call-ups, certainly have helped Arizona's cause, the steady and effective play of Byrnes is likely why this team will make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Remember that it was only three years ago in '04 when Arizona finished with a horrendous 51-111 record.

Byrnes has always shown promise, which started when he was part of two dynamic UCLA lineups which included Toronto's Troy Glaus and Colorado's Garrett Atkins. After being drafted in his junior year by the Houston Astros, Byrnes opted to play another year with the Bruins and stayed in school, where he was a double major in history and economics.

Although Byrnes slipped from the fourth round, where he was drafted by Houston, to the eighth round in the '98 MLB Draft, where the Oakland A's drafted him, Byrnes left behind quite a legacy at UCLA, where he was named to the First Team All Pac-10 team twice and was an honorable mention twice.

While Byrnes was making a pretty steady climb through the A's organization, his most noteworthy performance before he was a regular in the majors actually came in the Dominican Winter League in 2001 as a member of the Licey Tigers. Byrnes was named MVP of the league, as the Tigers won the league's championship.

With a ton of fanfare coming from Sacramento to the Caribbean, Byrnes seemed destined for big things, and Baseball Weekly agreed, naming Byrnes as one of top-10 best hitting prospects in baseball prior to the '02 season. Carlos Pena, who was Byrnes teammate on the A's at the time, and is also having a breakout year so far with Tampa Bay, joined Byrnes on the list.
Byrnes manned left field for Oakland as a starter for three years. He instantly became a fan-favorite for his hustle and his work ethic. Byrnes was making Baseball Tonight's "Web Gems" on a regular basis.

The 2003 season ended on a sour note for Byrnes and the rest of the Oakland team, as the A's, despite having a 2-0 lead in the Division Series against Boston, could not win the deciding third game in each of their three chances. One of the lowest points of Byrnes' career also came in that series against the Sox, as a baserunning mistake by Byrnes, which could have been labelled by some as "ignorant" after he shoved catcher Jason Varitek at home plate, cost the A's a valuable run in Game 3.

The next year, it didn't seem as though the memories of that play at Fenway were on his mind, or at least his play suggested he had gotten past it, as Byrnes hit 20 homers, drove in 73, and stole 17 bases while hitting a respectable .283. Byrnes also showed his run scoring abilities despite a modest average, scoring 91 times.

After playing 100 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his major league career, Byrnes was figured to be a staple in left for the A's for years to come. That all ended 59 games into the '05 season, when he was traded to Colorado for Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick. Byrnes struggled mightily with the Rockies, despite being in one of the most "hitter-friendly" parks in baseball. After hitting only .189 in 15 games, Byrnes was again traded, this time to Baltimore for young slugger Larry Bigbie.

Byrnes could never quite get it together in Baltimore either, hitting .192 with just three homers and 11 RBIs in 52 games. Byrnes hit the free agent market after the '05 season, and due to his recent struggles, could not claim nearly as much as he could have commanded just one year before that. Arizona signed Byrnes to a one-year, $2.25 million deal. With the new team, Byrnes got a chance to play the position he loved the most, center field.

"The opportunity to play center field was just huge for me. I've never really gotten a ton of opportunities. I've always felt that was my best position." Byrnes said in an AP interview conducted right after the deal was announced.

With the starting center field job mortgaged out to Byrnes for the one year, he did not disappoint the D-Backs brass that took a chance on him. Byrnes was an instant smash not only on the field, but off it as well, as he brought the charm and character that had won him so many fans with him to Phoenix, becoming one of their most popular players. On the field, Byrnes showed why he was heralded as one of the best prospects not so long ago, hitting a career-high 26 home runs, 79 RBIs, and 25 steals, completing his first 20/20 season.

Going into the '06 off-season, Byrnes was arbitration-eligible, and earned a $4.575 million settlement. Even after having a career year, there continued to be some question as to whether or not Byrnes would be a D-Back after the '07 year was up. Josh Byrnes, Arizona's GM, did not try to sign Eric to a long-term deal, with the GM's reasoning being that the guys they had coming up in the organization was "an area of strength."

Eric Byrnes on Arizona's initial decision: "That's their decision. That's nothing that I have control over," Byrnes said. "As far as I'm concerned, everything that I've ever gotten in my baseball career and essentially in my life is something I had to work for and something I had to earn."
The "hard-working" part had not been an issue for Byrnes his entire baseball career. Seeing that his job could be jeopardy given guys like Carlos Quentin, Chris Young, and Justin Upton were steadily creeping up on the major league radar, Byrnes decided to put it into overdrive.

Arizona has good young talent all over the field, but it took a veteran like Byrnes, who has experienced both the highs and lows of the majors, to come in and be a presence for the new guys, and also, to be looked upon as someone who could provide consistency, as it would be almost impossible to expect all of the rookies to have immediate impacts on the team. Byrnes has so far taken the ball and ran with it in terms of his leadership role.

So far this season, Byrnes has been on a phenomenal tear, and he shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Byrnes, through September 11th, has 21 homers, drove in a career-high 81 RBIs, and could do something that no Diamondback has done since Tony Womack in '99: score 100 runs and steal 50 bases. Byrnes has 94 runs and 45 steals with 16 games left to play. If Byrnes hits even one of those milestones, it will be a career-first.

Byrnes as shifted back over to left to make way for Young, but has to be happy in his current situation. He is playing better now than he ever has, and with his new three-year, $30 million contract, Byrnes can rest assured that he will be a fixture in Arizona's outfield for the forseeable future. With Arizona being in first, and already eclipsing their winning total from last year (82 so far this year compared to 76 all of last year), Byrnes should definitely be given consideration for the league's Most Valuable Player Trophy.

Byrnes has been invaluable in the clubhouse, and in addition, he has produced some eye-popping numbers this year. Byrnes' will be up against some stiff competition however, with the Mets' David Wright and the Brewers' Prince Fielder both having huge seasons on fellow first-place teams. Also, it's hard to bet against both Albert Pujols, the '05 MVP, and Chase Utley, who despite missing 28 games with a broken hand, is having an incredible season for the hard-charging Phillies.

However, if you break down the award in the way it is presented, it is the "most valuable" player, not the guy who gets the best stats on the best team. Wright has Reyes and Beltran in his lineup, Fielder has been tremendous, but yet, so hasnt Milwaukee's entire team, especially Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and J.J. Hardy. The Cardinals are fading in the playoff hunt, and the Phillies are still 2.5 games behind San Diego for the Wild Card.

That leaves Byrnes. Not to say that Byrnes hasn't had some help this year, with Chris Young attempting to reach the 30/30 plateau as a rookie, and Brandon Webb going pseudo-Orel Hersheiser in August. Still, Byrnes is the leader of the D-Backs, and who knows if their transition from bottom dwellers to World Series contenders would have been as sudden if Byrnes was not on this roster. He has played in 145 out of a possible 146 games, so there's no questioning that his presence has been felt all season long.

Byrnes was an after-thought in '05 when he was traded twice during the season. Now, he's the toast of Arizona, and has implanted himself as one of the best in the game. My say likely will have no bearing on the actual vote itself, but it's getting really difficult for anyone to argue Byrnes' credentials to be given the NL MVP this season.



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