Byrnes, Mariners agree to one-year deal
Veteran gives Seattle much-needed right-handed bat in lineup
SEATTLE -- Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said during a Thursday media luncheon that the team was closing in on a right-handed bat to beef up the outfield.
And as everyone who's been watching Zduriencik operate this winter knows well, he doesn't mess around.
On Friday, the team signed veteran free agent Eric Byrnes to a one-year deal, giving the club an extra high-energy presence with the versatility to play all three outfield positions and fit in well with the slash-and-dash offense Zduriencik is building to fit Safeco Field.
Byrnes will likely share time in left field with new acquisition Milton Bradley and reserve Ryan Langerhans and can also fill in for center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki when necessary.
He's projected as a speed- and finesse-oriented hitter toward the top of the lineup or in the No. 9 position in front of leadoff man Ichiro depending on manager Don Wakamatsu's batting order on a given day.
And he's a bargain, too.
Since Byrnes, who will turn 34 on Feb. 16, was released by the Arizona Diamondbacks two weeks ago and the D-backs still owed him $11 million for the final year of a $30 million contract, the Mariners were technically able to sign him for the $400,000 Major League minimum. Arizona is still responsible for the remainder of his 2010 salary.
Given the fact that Byrnes played in only 52 games in 2008 because of hamstring issues in both legs and missed over two months (June 26-Sept. 5) on the disabled list with a fractured left hand in 2009, the veteran said during a conference call with Seattle media that he's happy to be healthy, happy to be a Mariner, and everything else will be gravy.
"Speaking with Jack, the role wasn't necessarily specified other than the fact that he believes that I would contribute," Byrnes said. "That's all that I needed to hear. I'm healthy for the first time in two years. I just needed a team to believe in me half as much as I believe in myself.
"It's about getting back on the baseball field, proving to myself and the Mariners and the rest of baseball that I'm healthy and I still have the ability to play this game at a high level. Talking to Jack, I felt like I would get that opportunity."
Byrnes, a career .260 hitter with 109 home runs, 396 RBIs and 128 steals in 948 career games with the Oakland A's (2000-2005), Colorado Rockies (2005), Baltimore Orioles (2005) and D-backs (2006-2009), had a breakout season in 2007, setting career highs in all but two offensive categories, ranking fourth in the National League with 50 steals and collecting 21 homers and 83 RBIs. He was also ranked in the top-three left-field defenders in John Dewan's Fielding Bible.
But he admitted that the injuries over the last two years contributed to lackluster performances and a loss of his trademark enthusiasm for the game.
"When I came back and rehabbed in Triple-A and spent almost a full month there, I really rediscovered my passion for baseball," Byrnes said. "It made sense why I've been playing this game since I've been 9 years old. It's because I love it."
That love is one of the reasons why Byrnes said he will happily accept the eventual role given to him by Wakamatsu, even if it's on the bench.
"Perfectly fine with that," Byrnes said. "Obviously I'm a competitor and want to play as much as possible, but if it's starting out in a platoon role, I think my play will dictate the amount of playing time I'm warranted.
"I'm not going to complain. I've spent plenty of time on the bench. I know how to deal with that role. For me, it's about taking advantage of any opportunity I have, starting Day One in Spring Training. At this point in my career, I have to earn it."
"He's a high-energy guy, he's an above-average defensive player, he's the right-handed bat we talked about and he's experienced," Zduriencik said.
"There are a lot of things to like about his game, and it's good to bring in a veteran player who's certainly familiar with the division."
Byrnes likes what he's seen out of Zduriencik, too. He said even before he parted ways with Arizona, he'd noticed the myriad of moves the Seattle GM had put in place to improve what already was the most-improved club in baseball from 2008 to 2009 -- particularly the surprise three-team trade that brought the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee, to the Seattle rotation.
"I liked the Mariners last year," Byrnes said. "When we came up to play them last year, it seemed like Don had these guys playing the game the right way. Defensively, there was a presence about them, just the way they played. You don't see that all the time at the big league level.
"It's a city and a team that's always intrigued me, and watching the moves that Jack made and to have him be one of the first ones to call as soon as I was released, it seemed like a real natural fit."
To make room for Byrnes on the Mariners' 40-man roster, Tommy Everidge was designated for assignment, which means the Mariners now have 10 days to trade, release or outright Everidge to the Minors. Everidge was claimed on waivers by Seattle from Oakland on Jan. 15.
And after a Friday physical that included what Byrnes described as a "tug of war with the team orthopedic" and the hardest anyone has ever pulled on his hamstrings, all systems are go for baseball in Peoria, Ariz., next month.
"The legs," Byrnes said, "are as healthy as they've ever been."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.